This week’s Star Tribune series “Shamed into Silence” sheds light on a tragic, shocking situation for too many Hmong girls. Reporters Dan Browning and Pam Louwagie documented a Twin Cities subculture of gang rape and forced prostitution that preys on them.
It is an especially difficult problem to crack because victims are reluctant to report crimes committed against them, cases are tough to prosecute, and programs to help Hmong youth avoid crime and victimization have been cut. In addition, sexist practices that are cultural for Minnesota’s largest Asian immigrant population tend to cover up the problem. All that leaves girls as young as 10 with no place to turn. That is unacceptable.
To help them, social service budgets that have been cut in recent years should be restored. A Ramsey County sheriff’s program to track down runaways was cut a few years ago just as it was gaining trust in the community. Summer- and after-school programs have also suffered budget blows. Too often, the few efforts that remain are limping along. The Hmong Youth Task Force, for example, is mostly a volunteer effort that struggles to stay afloat with a lot of dedication but very little funding.
To their credit, the St. Paul schools have a training video that helps staff members identify warning signs of abuse and ways to help victims.
Police departments, however, need additional investigators to identify both victims and assailants in these brutal crimes. Girls caught in the culture clash of old country/new country values are not coming forward voluntarily. Therefore, law enforcement, with the help of school staff or any other adults who come in contact with young victims, must be aggressively seeking them out.
As for punishment, once officers do the work to bring these tough cases to the justice system, perpetrators must be properly punished. These vicious, multiple assaults leave lasting emotional and physical scars, and must not be dismissed with light sentences or probation.
Finally, Hmong leaders — especially male Hmong leaders — must strive to become role models and help change their community’s attitudes toward the treatment of girls and women. A 2002 Ford Foundation study concluded, “There is … community denial of sexual abuse, lack of punishment for perpetrators, and learned behavior from watching male family members and friends. Victims are revictimized: blamed for the rape, forced to marry the perpetrator, shunned by the community, stigmatized … and held responsible for the ruined reputations of themselves and their families.”
In Laos, perhaps men could kidnap and rape their eventual brides; that behavior isn’t tolerated here. Nor do Americans accept turning children into slavelike sex workers. It must stop, all of it.