A H’mong girl’s journey, from kidnapped to attorney

By Hai Hien   March 13, 2024 | 03:21 am PT
Sung Thi So wanted to escape by jumping off a cliff. It was the third time she had been “bride kidnapped”, a custom prevalent among the H’mong people in northern Vietnam.

The practice literally entails a man physically kidnapping a girl to make her his wife. For So, the third time it happened to her, it felt like suicide might be the only way out.

But no matter how much she wanted to end it all, her fear of not being able to take the university entrance exam stopped her. Her dreams of making a better life for herself were enough to keep her alive.

It was nearly four years ago that So, born in 2002 in Tran Yen District, Yen Bai Province, was held captive at the house of her kidnapper for the last time.

Sung Thi So at her high school graduation ceremony in 2021. Photo courtesy of So

Sung Thi So at her high school graduation ceremony in 2021. Photo courtesy of So

She thought of waiting until nightfall to try and make her escape. Unfortunately, with her phone confiscated and the mountainous surroundings shrouded in darkness, the idea was simply not possible.

Despite enduring coercion and physical abuse, So fought bravely against her harasser for two days and nights.

Finally, she had the chance to call her parents, pleading with them to intervene and convince the man’s family to let her go.

Surprisingly, So was released back to her parents’ home, a stroke of luck that she still finds unbelievable. No other kidnapped "bride" in the village has ever been allowed to return to their birth parents.

A few months after her release, So was admitted to Hanoi Law University with an impressive score of 28.5 out of 30 on the university entrance exam. In the same year, her resilience and determination earned her Yen Bai’s "Outstanding Ethnic Minority Student" award for the 2020-2021 academic year.

"After being a victim of wife kidnapping for three times, I was determined to study law. I want girls like me in remote areas to have equal access to education, as well as respect and freedom to choose their path in marriage", So shared.

Sung Thi So is the second child from a poor farming family with five siblings. Since her home often did not have enough food to eat, So began working at a very young age. She learned to work in the fields as a child, and always help with chores around the house.

At just six years old, her daily work included trekking nearly ten kilometers along mountain paths to herd pigs, sometimes navigating the darkness after school hours and sleeping in the forest.

Despite their hard work, the family's income depended solely on cultivated crops like corn and cassava. As a result, So’s eldest sister had to drop out of school early to work for extra money.

A teacher once came to the house to collect a tuition fee of VND70,000 ($2.83). Not having enough money to pay the fee, So’s parents thought of terminating her education like the eldest sister. However, the teacher insisted that they should let So continue her schooling. The teacher believed So’s potential would take her far and lift the family out of poverty in the future.

"The teacher’s words really fueled my determination to stay in school", So recalled.

Every day, she got up very early, promptly finished all the housework, and then immersed herself in her studies. So’s unwavering commitment always yielded top results, inspiring her parents to work harder to support her educational journey.

But, despite studying at a boarding school in the district, So still became a victim of bride kidnapping.

So’s first such experience occurred when she was in grade 8. A strange boy from a neighboring village abducted her during festivities for the locality’s New Year’s celebration. Fortunately, kind neighbors intervened, securing her escape.

The second time, she was kidnapped by a boy from another village, just before entering high school. Young men from her neighborhood came to her rescue in time, but not without a cost - one of them was stabbed and seriously injured during the confrontation.

"The scariest was the third abduction. It was before my high school graduation exam," Son recalled. "The event almost robbed me of my future."

Sung Thi So representing UNICEFs Pioneer Youth Initiative in 2023. Photo courtesy of So

Sung Thi So representing UNICEF's Pioneer Youth Initiative in 2023. Photo courtesy of So

In May 2020, a social distancing order was in effect amid the Covid-19 pandemic. So was at home alone, diligently studying for the high school graduation exam, when two strangers knocked on her door and invited her to come out. Knowing that the two men had been hanging around the neighborhood inquiring about her, she firmly declined the invitation.

But the men then grabbed her and forcibly dragged her onto their motorbike. They also took her phone. Sandwiched between the two, she was unable to fight or resist. She felt powerless.

So knew very well that she had once again become a victim of wife kidnapping. She contemplated jumping off the bike and plunging off the roadside cliff many times. Nonetheless, the thought of injuring herself and jeopardizing her upcoming high school graduation and university entrance exams stopped her from making the risky escape. She decided to patiently wait for a better chance.

On the second day of captivity, her opportunity finally came. The kidnapper’s mother sent her son to spray pesticides on their rice fields, which happened to be near the national highway. Seeing a chance to escape, So asked to come along. At the same time, she asked for her phone back, ostensibly to call her school and check on her new schedule.

The young girl’s requests were granted. As she waited to leave the house, she escaped to a corner and called her father and told him she was against the marriage.

In the Hmong community, parents of a kidnapped bride typically accept the situation, albeit reluctantly. However, So’s father was profoundly moved by his daughter’s desire and determination to pursue education.

He proceeded to call the other family, trying to persuade them to let his daughter return home, under the pretext of discussing the wedding. So got home safely, and vowed to never set foot in the kidnapper’s house again, despite ongoing threats from the family.

As a stigmatized three-time victim of wife kidnapping who kept refusing to get married, Son was ostracized and shamed by her neighbors. They called her worthless, stating no one would want her in the future. Some even scolded So's parents for letting her go to university, which they said would not be of any help or use for the family.

During this period, fearing neighborhood retribution, So was too scared to step out of the house. She stayed up many nights, haunted by guilt for what her experiences had put her parents through, and paralyzed by the crushing weight of powerlessness. The thought of ending her life crossed her mind many times. But she chose to fight on.

"I have longed to go to school for too many years to give up at this point because of some problems," So thought to herself, knowing the status quo would persist if no one dared to do things differently. Ultimately, her desire for education won out against the fear of prejudice and the opinions of others.

Sung Thi So at her Hanoi Law University graduation thesis defense in December 2023. Photo courtesy of So

Sung Thi So at her Hanoi Law University graduation thesis defense in December 2023. Photo courtesy of So

After some time recuperating from her traumatic experiences, So got back up on her feet. She threw herself into preparing for the university entrance exam. Initially aspiring to become a teacher, she later shifted her focus to law, with the goal of advocating for disadvantaged women like herself.

Having secured admission to a university in Hanoi, So juggled 3 to 4 jobs at the same time to cover the tuition fees and living expenses. Her daily routine involved waking up at 5 am for study sessions, then attending classes, and then dedicating her remaining time to various part-time jobs, ranging from cleaning and household chores to office work. Her days often extended late into the night.

With the money she earned, in addition to meeting her own needs, So also sent money home to support her two younger brothers who were still in primary school.

Seeing So’s working schedule, friends playfully dubbed her "superwoman." They were in awe.

"Besides studying and working, So also engaged in women’s and children’s rights advocacy activities," said Tran Thi Thao, So’s university classmate. "She pours her whole heart and soul into whatever she does."

During her four years at university, So’s broadened her horizons with a wide range of activities.

She was one of the two Vietnamese representatives at the Asia-Pacific Conference on Child Marriage Prevention, and one of 15 Southeast Asian youths chosen to represent The Spark Fund, a partner of the Global Children's Fund. She also took part as a delegate at many conferences, such as UNICEF's Pioneer Youth Initiative, and the UN Youth Roundtable on Development.

Her efforts earned her a scholarship from the German government as part of a program aiming to benefit underprivileged students with outstanding academic achievements.

Previously a girl confined within her village borders, So has now visited countries all over the world. And her professional drams hare also come true. She’s now a lawyer championing women and children’s rights, particularly for women residing in highland areas who rarely have the chance to leave their community and see the world.

Despite the challenges that lie ahead, So firmly asserts: "Just keep moving forward, and you will find the way."

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