Hmong women use TikTok to reveal marriage exploitation in Thailand

Hmong new year

Traditional games at Hmong New Year celebration. Photo from Flickr page of John Pavelka, (CC BY 2.0)

This article by Pimkamon Pichitsiri and Kunravee Sukhimoke was translated by Yiamyut Sutthichaya. This was originally published by Prachatai, an independent news site in Thailand, and an edited version is republished by Global Voices under a content-sharing agreement.

Some young Hmong women are using TikTok to expose the slave-like conditions they have to endure at the hands of their husbands’ families. Experts say these women often are forced to do significant amounts of unpaid labor and are denied freedoms.

We barely have any free time. Working in the fields every day. … So the videos we made are just about going to the fields every day, because we are just in the fields, we have no time to do anything else.

Because there is work to do on the scallions every day – picking the scallion flowers, and then having to weed, and then having to add fertiliser, we do this time after time for the whole year. … We have no time to rest.

These are the words of Pakkhom, 20, a young Hmong wife whose TikTok account has over 470,000 followers. She is one among many Hmong TikTokers who have been using the platform to tell the public about their plight. Their hardship can be found by the hashtags #ลูกสะใภ้ม้ง #สะใภ้ม้ง (Hmong daughter-in-law) and #สาวม้ง (Hmong woman).

The Hmong is an ethnic group in East and Southeast Asia.

After monitoring TikTok and interviewing eight Hmong women, Prachatai found many Hmong girls aged 15–16 years were forced into arranged marriages. After marriage, they are moved into their husband’s home, where they are often subjected to long hours of work in the family’s business, such as running a resort, store, or farm, and in housework. The interviewees had been working 12 hours per day for one to three years, they were paid 500 to 30,000 Baht, about 15 to 873 US Dollars. Many later decided to part ways with their husbands.

Some legal experts see their fate as constituting forced labor as defined under the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act B.E. 2551 (2008).

“It is conceivable that this may be modern slavery, because daughters-in-law have no negotiating power. … They don’t get wages, they work hard from dawn till dusk, and they receive no welfare because it is seen as family work, so according to the law, they do not count as part of the workforce,” said Suchart Trakoonhuthip, coordinator of the MAP Foundation, a civil society organization that addresses ethnic labor issues.

Modern slavery is a term that includes human trafficking, forced labor, child labor, slavery, prostitution, and forced marriage.

Work hard, earn nothing

Pakkhom said she has to get up at four or five in the morning to do the housework and get breakfast. Then she goes to the scallion field to weed, gather crops, and add fertilizer. She is in the field until dusk before returning home to cook, do more house chores, sleep, and repeat the schedule the next day. She does not get a day off. Her free time is spent planting vegetables at home, gathering firewood, and making Hmong garments to wear.

When men actually take us as a wife, we have no freedom. It’s just like slavery. Hmong daughters-in-law will be involved in farming, gardening, and housework — everything. No matter where we want to go, we have to get permission from our mother-in-law.

At least three Hmong women said in interviews that they had to work hard because the Hmong believe that when women are married, their bodies and souls move into their husband’s families and that the women’s guardian spirits will also be replaced by those of the husbands’ families. This belief makes divorce difficult.

Tawan (pseudonym), 20, another Hmong woman, said that while she works at her husband’s resort and Chinese cabbage field in Phetchabun Province when all the hard work is done, her husband is the one who receives all the income.

At that time, I was clearly like a slave, a menial. … Everyone else was employed at tens of thousands [of baht] a month. They just had to do the cleaning. They did not have to cook at night. … [The employees] only worked from 8–5, and then they could go home and rest.

Hmong women at work

Another post on Hmong women daily live by @adipa19. The caption says “While others live their young lives fully.” Image from Prachatai

Limits to freedom

Many Hmong interviewees said they had to receive permission to go out or spend money, depriving them of the freedom to enjoy their lives or travel to see their own families.

Waew (pseudonym), 26, another Hmong woman, said her parents-in-law forbade her to wear a skirt or associate with friends at any social gathering. Her mother-in-law verbally abused her, damaging her self-confidence. And when she wanted to talk about her opinion or stress, they brushed it aside, seeing it as nothing of importance.

I felt really worthless. Sometimes I wanted to cry and go back home to see my mother. I never cooked for my mother, so why does she still praise me as a good, capable and hard-working person? But now I’m with them, whatever I do, they are not pleased.

Domestic violence and forced labor

Three legal experts said the way the Hmong women are made to work might constitute a violation of Thailand's anti-human trafficking law as constituting forced labor or forced service. Offenders can be given a six-month prison term or THB 50,000 fine (USD 1,506). If the forced labor victim dies, the offender may also face the death penalty.

Raporn Pongpanitanon , an expert from the Office of Women's Affairs and Family Development, Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, said what the Hmong women had been through counts as domestic violence and that the offenders could be charged under the Victims of Domestic Violence Victim Protection Act, B.E.2550 (2007).

Raporn, however, said the details have to be further investigated to proceed with charges, and that the law has usually been used in business cases rather than family disputes.

Unchained

Waew recounted the day she moved into her husband’s house in Mae Hong Son Province. Her husband's family intended for her to replace three employees who were hired at THB 250 (USD 75) a day. She worked over 14 hours a day to complete all three people's jobs. Her husband's family kept all the money.

I was pregnant, but they still had no pity. They still used me to lift heavy things… I lifted it till my stomach went hard. It hurt. I went to lie down for a moment, and they called me back to work.

After this, she decided to part ways with her husband in 2019 to live her own life.

I’ve made a mistake once. The big one in my life. I won’t do it again. I was once married, but it turned out worthless. But today I see my own value. I have the right to choose. I listen to my own heart as best I can, and move forward.

Beside Waew, Tawan also took her two-year-old child out of her husband’s house and moved to a strawberry farm in Udon Thani. However, this path is not accessible or practical for all Hmong women.

*This article was written as part of media training by Thomson Reuters Foundation. The authors are responsible for all the original published content.

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