Chompuu was walking along the dirt road toward home, her shiny black hair tucked neatly behind her ears. It was a late afternoon in April, the hottest month of the year in Thailand’s northern hill country. As soon as she turned onto a narrow path leading to her house, a car pulled up on the road behind her. Suddenly, five teen boys jumped out. They grabbed Chompuu and shoved her into the car. She screamed for help, but no one answered her cries.
The 13-year-old girl was driven to a small house where she was locked inside a bedroom. There was no way of escape. After three days of captivity, in keeping with the tradition of the Hmong people, she was declared the wife of her kidnapper.
“I didn’t want to marry him,” says Chompuu. “But I had to because it is a tradition.”
That was five years ago. She was another victim of the ages-old Hmong custom known as “bride kidnapping.”
Bride Kidnapping: A Harmful Tradition
Bride kidnapping has been practiced in many cultures around the world for thousands of years. Young girls are often the target, and thus it’s a form of forced child marriage. The practice still occurs in various places around the world such as Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia and among the Hmong people group in Southeast Asia in Thailand and Laos.
According to UNICEF, Thailand and Laos have the highest rates of child marriage in Southeast Asia. The legal age of consent for marriage is 17 in Thailand and 18 in Laos. But in too many cases the law is ignored in favor of cultural traditions, such as the Hmong tradition of early marriage through bride kidnapping.
Bride kidnapping in Hmong culture allows girls as young as 13 years old to be abducted by their would-be grooms. These men may or may not have permission from the girl’s family to carry out the kidnapping. Some men use this practice of marriage by abduction simply to take sexual advantage of young girls, using culture as an excuse.
Underlying this outdated, harmful practice is the deeply held cultural belief that females are not as valuable as males. In fact, after kidnapping and marriage, girls are considered tainted, and even outsiders, by their own families.
Hand in hand with the Hmong belief in child marriage is the belief that educating a girl is a vain investment. If she is destined to leave home at an early age to marry, why educate her?
Noojee: A Different Story
There are just two years’ difference in age between 17-year-old Noojee and her friend, Chompuu.
“Most of my friends are married,” says Noojee. “They were married when they were just 14 or 15 years old. Not many of us are still in school.”
But Noojee is unmarried and still attends school.
Her parents are subsistence farmers, living in the same house with six other families in their clan. Noojee’s parents, unable to adequately care for their children, were eager to register Noojee in the Compassion program where she would receive medical care, educational assistance and nutritional support. But their family practiced ancestral worship and Noojee’s grandmother was a witch doctor. So her enrollment in the church-based program and school met with fierce opposition by the extended family.
“It was quite a challenge when Noojee was first registered in the program,” recalls Center Director Lursak SaeJang. “Her family had the typical mindset that girls don’t need education and must remain at home to serve the family.”
But Noojee’s father witnessed a change in his daughter. She was becoming a strong and courageous person through the influence of the church and its Compassion program. He decided to take the family to church. Soon, each member of Noojee’s immediate family placed their faith in God. And with time, they adopted a new set of Bible-based family values, including gender equality, education for girls and protection from forced marriage.
“Before we became Christians, my family didn’t eat together because all the females in the house had to eat after the males had finished their food. Only then could the women eat. But now we all eat together at the table,” says Noojee. “My dad is happier, and he is very supportive of my sister and me attending school, not just my brother.”
Becoming Champions of Change
“I never thought bride kidnapping would occur in my family.”
Bride kidnapping is an issue that is deeply meaningful to Center Director Lursak. His own daughter was victimized by this practice. But with the encouragement of the pastor, he went to the police and with the help of International Justice Mission, they prosecuted and won the case.
Now Lursak passionately campaigns against bride kidnapping. At least once a year, the staff at the Compassion center conducts community-wide parent meetings to raise awareness about child protection. And the partner church, led by Pastor Wittaya Sae-Wha, often speaks out against bride kidnapping throughout the Hmong communities spread across Thailand’s northern hill country.
The center staff take special delight in the fact that that there are just as many girls as boys registered in school — tangible evidence to the community of the center’s and partner church’s belief in gender equality. The staff are confident that education of girls is the key to combatting early marriage and bride kidnapping in the Hmong villages they serve.
And the church’s dedication is paying off.
“As a result [of our efforts], we can now see that the bridal abduction practice has gradually decreased,” says Pastor Wittaya. “Actually, in city areas, it no longer exists.”
Today, many Hmong people are beginning to recognize the rights of children and the importance of protecting girls. They have begun to reconsider their own tradition of bride kidnapping – finally seeing it as a serious wrong that demeans the girl and her family. They also have begun to value the girl child’s future and understand that education is essential for all children, equally.
Now Noojee and her friends know their rights. They know that they have a choice and a right to be treated equally.
“The women didn’t have an education and they didn’t know the law,” say Noojee and her friends. “We learn about the law and children’s rights in school. If bride kidnapping happens to our friend, we will fight for her. We won’t let go. We will fight to the end.”
Even in cultures steeped in traditions that dictate otherwise, Compassion, in partnership with the local church, is boldly upholding children’s human rights and ensuring they are known, loved and protected.
10 Comments |Add a comment
Wow! What horrific things that happen to children. I am a retired school teacher, and I know about family problems. I am also a foster parent, so I have seen some tragic things. Thank you for this story about Kidnapped brides as children. I will join in the prayers against such sinful ways. I have two compassion young boys that I support. I believe in this wonderful organization. Thank you for all you do. Linda
Thank you for sharing, Linda; and thank you for your prayers! ? We are deeply encouraged by how you are pouring into not only your sponsored children but also your foster children as well. Blessings to you!
I’m so happy that Noojee is ok and that other children can be ok now and safer much safer and bride abduction is alot less and that girls want to protect each other 🙂
How horrifying for young girls to be treated in such a way. I am grateful that there are people, especially the men in these cultures, that are willing to speak up and try to stop this practice. Thank you, Compassion International, for bringing a spotlight to this outdated, barbaric act and helping to further the end to it.
Hi, Pam! ? Thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement! As part of the Compassion family, please know that you are playing a huge role in all we do. ?
I just wanted to say how wonderful it is that things are changing for girls and women. Thanks to the courage of a few people speaking out and others changing their minds to do what is right. Thank you Lord for standing with Noojee to stand up for others.
I am Hmong myself and know and understand this tradition…it was this practice that has left such scarring in my family that by the time I came to my wits end and the only true way to healing that so timely opened up to me was Jesus Christ, I knew only he could truly heal me and my family…and most of all, my parents from all the brokenness they and we altogether experienced from this practice.
My parents were married under this practice–here in the US when they were acclimating as new refugees from the Vietnam War. Due to the tradition and the perceived community’s backlash, my mom stayed with my dad, and, in doing so, have developed a deep resentment of him. This has colored their relationship as a married couple for as long as I can remember, and I am the 4th child of 6. Our family has been wrought with strife and emotional scarring throughout the years as my siblings and I watched my parents argue each other to the ground, hurling death threats and the most demeaning things at one another. At one point, I started questioning why they argued so much and why they would say such things to one another, cursing one another (and there are some real spiritual realities behind these curses). I often asked myself, do they not love each other? If one is to love another and thus marry another to share their life together, why are they saying such things to each other? As I started questioning these things each time thereafter, I was deeply saddened but also immensely desperate to do something about it. Before I came to learn about the full truth of what happened between my parents, in my attempt to try to make things right and asking honest questions of my parents, I had made things worst with neither of my parents wanting to tell me and my siblings what had happened. To add to this, I was going through some tough times too in which I discovered a side of myself I was deeply ashamed of. All of it together, I saw that my parents’ relationship to one another was something beyond my help or any of my siblings’. Torn between my own shortcomings, the helplessness i experienced and yet deep desire to continue to help my parents in some way at all, I was at a loss at with myself to make things right–who am I to make things right, after-all? Later, this deep shame, complete loss, and powerlessness would lead me to foot of the Cross that showed me the true Redeemer, Healer, and Creator whose hands have reached out to me since the Beginning of Time. And I took His hand through Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross for me, His hand which was extended out of His unrelenting love for me, and I believed. I believe that only He could save me from myself, and not just me, but my entire family too from the scarring and bleeding we have all inflicted upon one another throughout the years. I am the first to come to Christ–to break tradition, to do things and live my life differently. I think of Joseph and the pain he felt from going through the ripping-away-from-his-father-and-family process. It was deep pain… For me, it still is. But I know that I have a Father in Heaven who is making things happen even though I may not yet see the answers to my prayers for my family. While I hope for their healing, my deepest desire is for them to be with me and with my Father in Heaven when it is time to go Home, where they will be fully healed from the waywardness of this world.
While reading, I almost cried. We Christians should do things as we belive, like Noojee’s father. I also from Asian culture and I know how hard it is to be changed from old cultural habits like ignoring rights of women. This kind of changing can only happen by God’s grace. Even many Christian families in this conturey, too, don’t want to listen to dauter’s voice. Because voice of daughter is not equally important to son’s. How awful is that? I really, really hope that every person treated eqully, in every place in the Earth.
Proud to sponsor my child from Thailand. As a Hmong American woman, I am thankful for Compassion and the difference they are making in these children’s life.
I am so grateful that I’ve been able to sponsor three girls from Thailand over the last 23 years or so and have a new one as of today, especially after reading this about bride kidnapping.
Thank you for the information and stories that remind us how important sponsorship is