Where children opt for marriage over school

By Hai Thu   July 4, 2022 | 08:37 pm PT
Where children opt for marriage over school
A H'Mong ethnic girl standing next to a corn field in Meo Vac District, Ha Giang Province. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh
Giang Thi Mai, an eighth grade student, remarried a week after escaping a marriage by abduction for fear of becoming a woman no one would marry.

On the morning of January 31, in a house surrounded by a peach garden in Ta De village in the northern Son La Province's Van Ho District, the 14-year-old looked in the mirror, combed her long hair, put on lipstick, and then ventured out.

That day her cousin on the other side of the village was getting married, and Mai and a friend put on their best clothes and headed to the wedding.

While they were on the way they were stopped by seven young men on three motorcycles. The tallest person flirted with Mai and said: "You look stunning today. Want to go to Hang Kia Commune and hang with us?"

The friend sitting behind her was terrified and clinging to Mai's shirt. Both of them stayed silent.

One of the motorbikes sped up and blocked the road, causing Mai and her friend to fall off their motorbike.

Three of them grabbed her friend and the other four dragged Mai to a car waiting nearby with the door open. Mai could only scream "Help!" but the door slammed shut.

It all happened in under two minutes.

The H'Mong girl panicked, not realizing what was happening, and screamed and banged on the car door.

Phu, who had teased Mai, grabbed her and would not let her go, saying, "Come home with me and be my wife."

Mai was terrified and tears started falling down her face.

Mai's cousin's wedding was being held only a few hundred meters away from the Phu's house. She had seen Phu before but the two had never spoken to each other before.

Once the car stopped, Mai clung to her seat and refused to get out.

"I only needed to put one foot in his house to become his wife," she later recalled, saying she tried to delay things as much as she could hoping her friend could inform her parents in time to save her.

But that did not happen.

Phu managed to drag Mai into a room and lock the door. A few minutes later his yard became extremely noisy.

Mai looked out of the window and saw her parents and family.

She sobbed even harder: "Mom, Dad, please save me; I don't want to be this man's wife."

Phu stood in front of the entrance with hands on his hips, blocking the gate, pushing Mai's father out, and declaring loudly: "She is on my land; so she is my wife now."

Dropping out of school

Vu Thi Hoa, who has been teaching at Long Luong Secondary School for over 10 years, gets two or three wedding invitations from both male and female students every year.

Many of them drop out of school right after getting married, some stay to finish that school year before dropping out.

Hoa says she never attends those "child marriages" and "loves" and "is mad at the students at the same time."

Her school is right on National Highway 6, but the majority of her students live on the other side of the rugged mountain range, in Ta De and Lung Xa villages, which is know for being drug hotspots.

Hoa and her colleagues are determined to persuade students living in the drug-infested Long Luong Commune to attend school.

Every time they go out to campaign, the teachers must ask a few students to accompany them just to get into someone’s house. Often they would encounter parents high on drugs and have to leave disappointed.

After Hoa heard Mai had been abducted for the purpose of marriage from the class president, she called up her parents to ask how were they doing.

The father said over the phone: "All I can do now is hope she would able to escape on her own, Teacher. According to H'Mong tradition of marriage by abduction, a girl must flee on her own since it would bring bad luck for parents to seek it."

Hoa tried to persuade her father: "She is too young. I understand it is a tradition. But don't let that custom ruin your daughter's life and future."

The man politely mumbled "Yes" and hung up. Hoa was certain he would not defy a custom just because she said so.

According to the findings of a 2019 survey on the socio-economic situation of the 53 ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, the H'Mong ethnic group had the highest rate of child marriage at 51.5 percent, indicating that one out of every two H'Mong people married underage.

In Vietnam, the permissible ages for marriage are 18 for women and 20 for men.

Child marriage is no longer confined to remote villages or small communities. According to the World Bank, child marriage will cost developing countries like Vietnam trillions of dong in healthcare, lost incomes and decreased labor market productivity by 2030.

And at schools, teachers like Hoa have only one concern: if her students marry young, they will drop out.

National studies show that this fear of teachers is completely justified. In fact, the lower the average years of schooling for an ethnic group, the higher its rate of child marriage.

Many people came to Phu's house that night to celebrate his successful capture of a beautiful wife.

Mai was in the kitchen doing things her "mother-in-law" told her to without saying anything. While doing the chores, she looked around the house, thinking to herself that if no one was paying attention, she would escape.

Mai returned to her room after finishing work to close the door and cry, despite the fact that her stomach was empty. Phu pushed open the door in the middle of the night and collapsed on the bed, gasping for breath that smelled of alcohol. Mai sat motionless on a chair in a corner until morning.

"That night will haunt me until I die," Mai confided.

Fortunately, her chance to escape came the very next afternoon. Phu's mother learned that the village's pigs had gone missing, and she urged the entire family to help find them.

Mai took advantage of the fact that Phu's 12-year-old brother was the only one at home at the time, opened the gate, and ran for nearly 15 minutes to reach home.

When Mai saw her mother carrying her little brother in the yard, she ran up to hug her. Mother and daughter both cried.

However, Phu arrived at Mai's house, intending to take her back. But her relatives nearby rushed over to stop him, forcing Phu to call his family so that the two families could talk.

That afternoon the two sides sat face to face in Mai's house to decide the "fate" of a 19- and 14-year-old couple's marriage.

Mai's uncle chastised Phu, saying: "You abducted her and she does not love you. You should consider yourself lucky that my family does not report you to the authorities."

The boy stormed out, but Mai is still unhappy since she is still considered a married woman, according to H'Mong tradition.

Hoa was one of the first people Mai informed after successfully fleeing her abductor’s home. But after a few days of not seeing her student back in school, Hoa called to inquire.

Village elders forced Mai's parents to set up a tent for her to live in and eat separately because "it is bad luck for a daughter to escape from her husband's house," Mai revealed.

Otherwise they had to perform a three-day offering, according to the tradition.

Hoa told Mai: "Please come to school after the offering. I and your classmates are waiting for your return."

She saw Mai come to class two days later. She had warned the other students not to broach the subject to ensure Mai did not feel bad.

She summoned the girl for a private conversation during break time.

"Now my job is to study hard so that I and my friends can change the minds of an entire generation later on," Hoa reassured her.

Mai looked at her smiling and nodded.

A week later Mai married her boyfriend of her own age, who lived five kilometers away in Hang Kia Commune in Hoa Binh Province's Mai Chau District.

The young couple, who met on social media, said they had loved each other for six months.

Knowing Mai was being held captive by another man, the boy had resolved to marry her as soon as she escaped.

Mai said he was the person she loved, and so willingly got his car to accompany him home, thereby "voluntarily becoming his wife."

"I am still considered a married woman, no one wants to marry. Besides, if I wait a few more years he might fall in love with someone else."

Giang A Chu, a 15-year-old boy in Mai's class, has also known his newlywed wife through social media since November last year.

The 14-year-old girl in Hoa Binh's Mai Chau District lives 30 minutes away by motorcycle from Chu’s house.

After more than a month of communicating online the young couple met for the first time on January 1, the H'Mong New Year.

Chu drove more than 20 kilometers every day for the next nine days to meet her. On the 10th, the young woman agreed to accompany him back to Long Luong Commune and marry him.

Chu, like Mai, said he did not regret his decision because she was the person he loved.

"My grandfather, father and brother all married at the age of 14."

The rate of child marriage among ethnic minorities is decreasing by more than a percent every year. The Government has increased the target for that to 2-3 percent.

But there are still girls like Mai who are forced to marry at a young age, making the above goal difficult to achieve.

Long Luong Secondary School held the year's closing ceremony on May 30, which was also Chu's final day as a student.

He and his wife plan to drop out of school next year to help support their family.

It was also Mai's final days. But she will merely relocate to Hang Kia and attend school there with her husband from next year.

She said her parents in laws have promised to let them move to Hanoi to study if the young couple wish to.

"But sometimes they still talk about not having a grandchild yet."

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