Mailee Yang surveyed hundreds of Hmong American women across the country about their experiences with divorce. Credit: Photo courtesy of Mailee Yang.

Mailee Yang had heard stories from other Hmong women about how hard it was to leave unhappy marriages. She recalled the whispers in her community about certain “bad Hmong women” who were held at fault for their divorces.

After her own divorce, Mailee Yang remembered her mom telling her, “It’s better to stay in a bad marriage than to be a divorced woman.” 

Hurt and confused, Mailee Yang set out to learn more.

“I tried Googling information about Hmong women and divorce and was able to find nothing,” she said. 

Mailee Yang decided to do her own research and ended up surveying hundreds of Hmong divorced women around the country about their experiences with divorce. Her intent is to eventually share her findings and find new ways to support women who’ve been ostracized for failed marriages.

Her research project came out of her participation in the Hmong Women’s Leadership Institute, a program run by the nonprofit Hnub Tshiab (pronounced NOO-chia), also known as Hmong Women Achieving Together. The group aims to improve the lives of Hmong American women and address gender equity in the community.

Over six months, she conducted an online survey inquiring about experiences of Hmong divorcees. More than 230 Hmong women between 18 and 50 years old, and spanning 19 states, took part in the survey. 

She asked the women which factors influenced how stressful the divorce was. About 57 percent of respondents said they were in abusive relationships, and about half said they didn’t have supportive in-laws, relatives or family members. And 71 percent said having children made divorce more stressful, Yang said.

Mailee Yang believes the stress women feel while going through a traditional Hmong divorce stems from not properly addressing the cultural norms that have adversely affected women.

“There is still work that we need to do, and we need to be willing to talk openly about it,” said Mailee Yang, who started her research when she worked at the Twin Cities nonprofit, BrandLab. She now works with the United Way in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

According to the Pew Research Center, only about 11 percent of Hmong Americans have been divorced. The overall U.S. divorce rate is around 40 percent.

While all divorces can be difficult, divorces in the Hmong culture can be especially complex. Couples who involve clan elders when they marry must also consult them when they split up, said Kao Ly Ilean Her, chief executive officer of the Hmong Elders Center and a founding member of the group Hnub Tshiab. 

A traditional Hmong marriage, she explained, involves two families forming an alliance. They are now connected through the union, and pledge to help support each other.

“When we get married, our families will negotiate the terms of our marriage,” Her said. “So when you divorce, you have to untangle all of that.”

The breakup of the union can impact the way the two clans interact with each other, she said. Finalizing the divorce can take many clan negotiations, a process that can last months, sometimes years.

In addition to facing clan negotiations, some Hmong women seeking divorce must also reckon with their religious beliefs, particularly if they practice shamanism. Her said in Hmong Shamanism, the wife leaves her father’s clan to join her husband’s clan. Her new clan is the one she’ll belong to when she dies and enters the afterlife. If she gets a divorce, a traditional belief is that the woman now does not spiritually belong to a clan.

“They’re pretty much saying that if you don’t have a husband, once something happens to you, your spirit has nowhere to rest,” said Kabo Yang, a Hmong woman from St. Paul who went through a divorce after 18 years of marriage. She said the marriage might have ended sooner had she not feared going through the Hmong divorce process. 

Fortunately, she said, her family supported her through the process.

“I didn’t get any kind of pushback saying, ‘You’re out of line,’” she said. “My family and I, we’re on really good terms. They’re very supportive of me and my kids. But I know that not every woman’s situation is this easy.” 

Elizabeth Yang remembers how her mom struggled after divorce.

“She was working many jobs and really had to find people to babysit me,”  she said. “She was so lonely.” 

Her parents got divorced when she was 3. That experience led Elizabeth Yang, who founded an annual global virtual summit called Hmong Women Take on the World, to start a campaign inviting people to write letters to divorced Hmong women.

“The topic of being a divorced Hmong woman kept coming up, and it’s such a deep systematic issue that I just was like, ‘What could we do that would spark the conversation in a loving, compassionate way?’” she said. 

One submission she got was from a man who wrote a letter to his wife, who had left a previous marriage.

“The letter that he wrote to her was just really touching because he saw the struggles and the stigma, but he loved her anyways,” Elizabeth Yang said.

In the letter he wrote, “Do not let other people’s prejudice and hatred bring you down,” he said. “No matter what comes our way, no matter what life throws at us, I am always here for you and I will always love you.” 

Yang also wrote a letter to her mother, letting her know how she realized the struggles she went through as a divorced Hmong woman with children. 

“I want you to know how much it still hurts me every time, I close my eyes and see you beg for help from the uncles,” she said.  “After the long hours of working and then going over to help cook, clean and give them money, they still turned away when you needed their help the most.”

Elizabeth Yang hopes the letters are a first step in unpacking deeper societal issues. She wants to give people tools and strategies to continue the conversation in a way that honors Hmong culture. 

Community leader Tou Ger Xiong agrees, even as he goes through his own divorce. Although the process for him has not been easy as a Hmong man, he said certain aspects of the culture affect Hmong women differently.

“I think as a Hmong man that we have a lot of male privilege, and that in some situations, it’s unfair that our Hmong sisters bear a heavier burden,” he said.

While Hmong men face cultural pressures, too, such as expectations of being the breadwinner and fulfilling other traditional gender roles, Hmong women give up a piece of their identity when they become married, Xiong said. 

“Traditionally, my mom was never called by her name,” he said. “Her birth name was Sao Lou, but as she got married — my dad’s name is Xia Ge — she became Niam Xia Ge to the community, meaning, the wife of Xia Ge.”

He said the men must be just as present in these conversations. 

“Our culture needs to maybe kind of look inward say, ‘Hey, how can we still uphold the women in our community so that they don’t lose a sense of a sense of their identity?” he said.

Mailee Yang and the other women working on this issue are grappling with how to fix the stigma around divorce while maintaining Hmong culture.

Through her research, Mailee Yang found there may actually be “loopholes” that would allow a divorcee’s immediate family to receive her in the afterlife. Scholar Prasit Leepreecha rediscovered a ritual called “phum” that would actually reintegrate a divorced Hmong woman into her native family. But Mailee Yang said over time, people became accustomed to the idea that women could not return to their original family.

Another cultural practice Hmong women are trying to amend is what’s known as the bride price — a sum of money paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s family to marry her.

“Some people say, ‘No, it’s a way to honor the bride’s family for having raised such a good daughter and we’re just thanking them and that’s a pledge that we will value her, so that it’s a value versus a purchase,’” Her said.

She said it’s becoming more common to set parameters around the practice. Typically, the groom’s family and clan will come together to contribute an amount of money to give to the bride’s family. But now, some families are refusing to pay a bride price if there’s abuse in the relationship or if the bride is underage.

Kabo Yang said more women are also taking on the traditional role of a Mej Koob (pronounced MAY-kong), or the “marriage broker” who negotiates between the two families. Some who support this change say having a woman steer these discussions will help the bride navigate the process.

After completing her research project, Mailee Yang shared her findings with the women she surveyed. She’s still figuring out how to bring it to a broader audience in hopes of lessening the stigma around divorce in her community.

Although progress is being made, Elizabeth Yang believes there needs to be a greater sense of urgency.

“If we don’t find a way to open this dialogue, break down this stigma and really have this conversation inside of our Hmong community, Hmong men and women of the next generation will leave the community and have no reason to come back,” she said.

“Then we lose our cultural identity.”