Shamed Into Silence

Pam Louwagie and Dan Browning, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Oct. 9

She struggled in the cold grass, sobbing and punching the boy who lay on top of her, but nothing made him stop.

She was only 12 years old, and she didn’t want to be a bad girl. No, don’t do it, she remembers begging him. I wanna go home.

She had headed to a barbecue with friends earlier that night, but somehow they got separated. She ended up in a St. Paul park with five boys she barely knew.

There in the dark, one of the boys yanked down her blue jeans before dropping his own baggy pants to his knees. He raped her while the others stood nearby, waiting their turn.

When the last boy had finished, she pulled her clothes back on, humiliated, exhausted, hurting. But even more devastating to her than the attack was the realization that it might have ruined her life.

By losing her virginity without marriage—even violently, against her will—she had violated a basic tenet of her Hmong culture. If her family found out, they would feel forever shamed. She feared her culture would require her to marry one of her attackers to save her reputation.

So she acted first. In the days that followed, she didn’t tell anyone about the crime—not her parents, not a doctor, not the police. Instead, she said, she called up one of the rapists.

Are you prepared to marry me? she asked the boy. Are you going to marry me?

Scores of Hmong girls in Minnesota—some not yet in their teens—have been raped or forced into prostitution over the past several years. Many of their attackers are Hmong gang members who go unpunished because shame keeps their victims from coming forward.

Records show that girls, many of them runaways, have been raped at Twin Cities-area farms, in motel rooms, basements, garages and closets. Some were threatened at gunpoint. Some were held down. Some were lured with methamphetamine, then prostituted to pay for the drug.

“It’s a huge problem,” said St. Paul Police Sgt. Richard Straka, who wrote an article on the topic for an FBI publication in 2003.

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Two years ago, pediatric nurse practitioner Laurel Edinburgh became so disturbed by the pattern of brutality she saw in her job treating young rape victims that she started collecting information. In a preliminary analysis, she found that the Hmong girls treated at her St. Paul clinic were about six times more likely than other victims to have been raped by five or more people.

She used her St. Paul clinic’s files dating from 1998 to 2003 to analyze 245 cases of 10- to 14-year-olds who had been sexually abused by people outside of their family. Of those, 30 were Hmong girls, all but two of whom had been treated at the clinic in 2003, after investigators started referring Hmong girls there. Because it’s not a random sample, the clinic’s numbers cannot be used to gauge the relative size of the problem. But they shed light on the nature of the attacks.

“The sexual abuse experiences of very young adolescent Hmong girls were markedly more severe than those of their peers,” Edinburgh wrote in a paper she presented at a conference in January.

A growing problem

A Star Tribune analysis using an FBI list of Hmong surnames shows that between 1999 and June 30, 2005, about 76 Hmong men and 21 Hmong teens were charged with sexually assaulting or prostituting girls in Ramsey County, which is home to nearly 60 percent of the state’s Hmong.

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More Hmong refugees have arrived in Minnesota this year as part of a resettlement of 5,000 people, and officials worry about gangs victimizing them.

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