“It’s a Family Matter” Stories of Abuse Gone Silent

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“It’s a Family Matter” Stories of Abuse Gone Silent
FILE: the image is used only for representational purpose (photo: fighterlaw.com)

In Laos, family conflicts, especially between spouses, are generally known to be kept within the family’s scope. While outsiders might intervene elsewhere to ease the situation for couples, their assistance would often face refusal to prevent possible consequences towards the family, including gossip, retaliation, and being perceived as weak.

This practice was put on display last month when a viral incident involving a Hmong couple in Xieng Khouang Province attracted attention online. During the annual Hmong New Year, a husband was seen inflicting severe injuries on his wife, leading to his arrest and the woman’s admission to a local hospital for treatment.

While authorities have yet to disclose the true reason behind the assault, speculations suggested that it stemmed from a love quarrel. 

Regardless of the brutal assault she received, the wife chose to refuse external support and insisted that she and her husband would rather solve the conflict on their own, raising questions among the internet community as to whether the husband’s influence had affected the woman’s decision.

This incident event sparked debate about whether keeping family issues within the family is a common practice in Laos.

Tuk Vongphachan, a Lao woman married to an American national, said that while she has not been physically abused during her marriage, seeking help in Laos could be perceived as being weak.

“It is due to the perspectives or cultural differences of the people who live in Southeast Asian society because asking for help is often considered a sign of weakness,” she added.

She also cited the gossip culture in Laos, explaining that if a family issue is made public, it could be talked about not just within the family circle but among others in the community.

“Another reason is trust, as people, especially Lao people, don’t want to talk about their problems as they are afraid that other people will gossip and spread rumors or secrets, so they tend to deal with the issues themselves and manage within their families without letting others know.”

Tuk suggested a solution, saying that if anonymous consultation were possible, perhaps Lao people might be brave enough to speak out about their problems. “But my question is, where can you be anonymous if you live in a rural village and have a family problem,” she added.

For authorities to intervene in spousal matters, at least one of the partners must seek help. If both partners agree to handle the problem on their own, the police would not have the right to intervene.

This view is shared by a Lao woman in Vientiane Capital who wishes to remain anonymous. “Most of the time, it is up to the wife,” she said. “If the husband manages to convince the wife not to involve the authorities, then they won’t get involved.”

The woman added that while she may consider seeking external assistance, she would first try to talk it out with her husband.

“A marriage consists of ups and downs, so when a problem arises, even as serious as domestic violence, we would try to talk it out first,” she said, explaining that communication is key. However, if the issue persists, seeking help would be her last resort.

A similar cultural norm is also happening in Laos’ neighboring countries. A study from Vietnam’s Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs in 2020 found that more Vietnamese women reported experiencing “more/less?” sexual abuse in 2019 compared to 2010, with 13.3 percent in 2019 versus 9.9 percent in 2010. 

The study also showed that this kind of abuse is often hidden: half of the women abused by their husbands never shared their story with anyone due to fear of retaliation, and up to nine out of ten women who experienced physical or sexual violence from their partners did not seek help from formal services for the same reason.

While most survivors chose not to talk about their experience to the public due to shame, fear, or concern about potential untoward results, they would still share their stories with their closest ones, such as family members or relatives. Lack of information about support agencies also reflects inaccessibility to services or the lack of publicity of related organizations, even though there are services available in all regions, a study from Thailand conducted by the College of Public Health Sciences, Chulalongkorn University in 2018 says.

The research further indicated that Thai women experiencing domestic violence had four main coping strategies, including counseling, requesting help from others, fighting back, and running away from home.

In Laos, the Counseling and Protection Center for Women and Children offers a 24-hour service for assistance and consultation in case of domestic violence. Victims can also reach out to their village office, a police station, or the women’s union to report abuse.

The incident highlights the strong tradition of keeping family problems within the family in Lao culture. While this can preserve harmony and avoid shame, it also reveals a lack of help for those facing domestic issues. As debates persist on privacy versus seeking assistance, it is evident that addressing these issues demands a deep grasp of cultural norms and the creation of support networks for those in trouble.