Marriage and married life in the world of disabled ethnic minority women

2-3 years ago, the Thai media paid more interest to the issue of the disabled, judging from the content appearing on television and in online media.  I myself became immersed in this issue with the creation of the ThisAble.me website to pose questions about the lives of the disabled, and to explore the doubts of society about the ability and rights of this group and the misconceptions that they have to face. Like ethnic minority women, hidden misconceptions force them to face many forms of inequality, from gender inequality to misunderstandings created from ethnic cultures, as seen in many studies.  But how much are disabled ethnic minority women recognized?

I went to Chiang Mai Province with a knowledge about ethnic women from books I had read.  For example, they are unable to communicate in Thai, and have no nationality and cannot access health care.  The culture is patriarchal.  With a broad perspective on disability, I spent 9 days with 2 groups, the Pga K'nyau and the Hmong.

There are now around 1.9 million registered disabled people in Thailand and there is still a large number that have not registered.  Many have no work and rely on a living allowance of 800 baht.  They still encounter problems of ill-treatment and discrimination, like ethnic minority women who in the past suffered various kinds of oppression, leading to ongoing efforts to change some customs so that the lives of ethnic minority women are made equal, such as creating the custom for Hmong daughters to return home when they are separated from their husbands.

The nonexistent ‘disabled’ Pga K'nyau women

‘Pga K'nyau men think that they must marry a disabled woman out of pity and some Pga K'nyau parents offer their daughters to men without having to go through the traditional ceremony.

Most disabled Pga K'nyau women in the Mae Wang area have a hearing disability.  Almost all communicate through sign language that they use in and around their homes.  People here do not see disability as something unusual but just the inability to use some organ of the body.

Baeri (pseudonym), 54-years-old, was on her way to gather passion fruit when I interviewed her.  She and her brother are deaf because of a ceremony that went wrong at birth.  She lives a normal life through sign language.  Normally women here marry when they are around 18-20, but Baeri fell in love with her husband ‘Thuan’ when she was 24 and was thought of as being ‘old enough to be a spinster’ in Pga K'nyau society.  The couple met because Thuan came to work with Baeri’s brother and got to know her and felt sorry that ‘she had no one who wanted her’ (in the sense that she did not have a family to look after her) so they decided to marry.

Earlier the Pga K'nyau often had arranged marriages but now after the introduction of Buddhism and Christianity, people understand about gender equality because they have had more education.  Gender oppression has therefore been reduced but there is still more rape and premarital sex with disabled women than with women in general.  This is the case of Tima (pseudonym), a woman with a hearing and intellectual disability, aged 28, who was married eight years ago.  Her husband ‘Jaded’ says that he loved and pitied her and wanted to look after her because Tima had no father and her family almost didn’t care about her.  He and Tima had sex before they were married eight years ago and she became pregnant.  Because they were not married, Tima’s mother gave their son away to someone outside their village and had her sterilized because she thought that she would not be able to look after a child.

Being a disabled Hmong = no access to education

Data from the TCIJ website shows that there are 800,000 disabled children of school age throughout the country but there are few special schools and they are remote.  So disabled children who live far away cannot access education, like Tima.  She copies the behaviour of those around her, from eating, washing clothes and scooping water to learning to use a washing machine.  She uses her free time to practice writing Thai.  She never went to school like her brothers and sisters, who went to school normally.  These days, her son and Jaded are studying Primary 2 at another village.  Tima has never forgotten her child and is always telling Jaded to bring him back.

Even though there are few disabled in proportion to the number of ethnic minority people, most disabled women are told to get sterilized, because there is a risk that they will be raped or get pregnant before marriage.  If they don’t know who has raped them and no one takes responsibility, the village will condemn them.  They will be accused of having HIV, as in the case of Jarungjit (pseudonym), 26, who has a learning disability.  She was raped by someone from another village.  The rape made her afraid and upset, but worse than that was that people in the village looked at her as if she had AIDS and was about to die.  Everyone beat her to keep her away.  A doctor recommended that she be sterilized as protection against pregnancy if she was violated again.  But she refused and asked only for a contraceptive injection after an examination showed she did not have HIV.  Jarungjit’s mother and stepfather had her married and she moved to be with the man because it was believed that he could look after her.  A month later, the man abandoned her and she came back to live with her mother and stepfather again.

Earlier there was very little sexual violence among the Pga K'nyau, but it has slowly increased.  Villagers believe that it has happened because of more outsiders coming to settle and the village has become a thoroughfare for surrounding villages.  Incidents of rape happen a lot, especially among intellectually disabled women and women with a hearing disability.  After a rape, the woman will be married off to the man in accordance with their culture and they often live together for a long time.  Only 2 couples have separated.

The scar of what happened to Jarungjit caused depression and she suffers repeated relapses because she has no medicine.  Since she separated three years ago, Jarungjit has had no other lover because she is afraid she will not be able to raise a child and she is happy that she may remain unmarried.

4 days is certainly not enough to relate everything that is happening but the signs of change from spirit worship to belief in religion makes people’s beliefs changeable as with the Hmong people.  This is in line with the observations of Angsurak Phromsuwan, a student of Hmong women, that Hmong women themselves choose to believe in religion as a way to access education and to form a bargaining group to deal with patriarchal beliefs that they have to face.  ‘In the Hmong culture that we see today, even though Hmong families had a good status, boys and girls are not sent to study equally.  There is the practice of bride kidnapping and then asking for permission.  A Hmong can have an unlimited number of wives for labour.  When a woman disappears, the family will know that she has been kidnapped.  In the morning, the parents will come to an agreement,’ Angsurak said.

The strong belief in spirits and ancestors among the Hmong is evident when there is a disabled person in the village.  Other people will think that disability is caused by something that the ancestors have done in the past rather than an abnormality in pregnancy or an illness that can be explained by medicine.  Disabled Hmong people have never been mocked or had their disability talked about because they believe this would anger the ancestors and affect their children and future generations of families with disabled people.  So disabled Hmong people are treated well and tradition requires that if a family has a disabled person, the younger brother must become the lifelong caregiver to his older sibling.

Young disabled Hmong woman who has no wedding day

 ‘Young Hmong women who are disabled will not marry no matter how minor their disability.’

Choen (pseudonym) is a Hmong woman who was born with a small body and rigid legs because of a brain infection at birth.  Choen can speak central Thai clearly because she studied from films and plays every day.  Even though she is very much into love scenes in plays, she repeats that she is single, has never had a boyfriend and wants to live with her parents.  Choen’s younger brother who is sitting nearby interrupts by saying that according to Hmong traditions, disabled women will not marry and will stay with their family all their lives.

As I have said, a belief in religion gives an opportunity to access education and increase one’s networks in the area.  The Hmong have relationships with Lao and Phetchabun and even the US, like Chinese families.  They have many networks and are expert traders.  They stick to their traditions of having children to carry on the family name, like Wichai Phusiriphathanon, who has been married for a long time but has no children.  He therefore decided to adopt Malai (pseudonym).  Malai, now 17, was adopted when she was 4 days old.  There was nothing at all to show that Malai was disabled but when she reached primary school age, she refused to go to school because she was slow and she couldn’t do anything.  Her father therefore sent his daughter to a school for the disabled in Chiang Mai city.  She left 2 years ago because her petulance meant she did not want to go to school.

Generally Hmong women will marry at about 16-17 years of age, or at Secondary 3 or 4, which is Malai’s age.  But this will not happen with Malai.  Her father says that his daughter will be the responsibility of the males in the family and he does not want her to leave the house for fear that she will suffer harm if no one is looking after her.

These days even though the custom of bride kidnapping still sometimes happens, it is gradually disappearing.  The way of life of young Hmong women is beginning to change as a result of education.  When they send their children to study, they follow a city lifestyle.  Their attitudes are changing to resemble those of the middle class.  Children of the new generation study in good schools, and their parents pick them up and send them.  However, city thinking is not all reflected in the village where there are elders who still strictly regulate Hmong culture.  Many people may think that accepting city culture may cause problems for the Hmong and make them lose their identity.  But for the Hmong, cultural integration is happening harmoniously.  Even if accepting city culture makes the Hmong more flexible in their lives, this flexibility makes many disabled women feel that they themselves do not have to stay in the culture of marriage which has been instilled in them.

The ability and opportunity to have to wait for an offer

‘When I was a kid, I could not sit, could not crawl, could not stand, but I wanted to walk so I tried, which was very painful.  In the end I could stand and walk but not like other people because my knees are smaller than normal.  My mother used to have to carry me around until I was eight or nine when I could help myself and to do daily chores’ Phetkamon said.

Phetkamon (pseudonym), is a 29-year-old woman with a physical disability resulting from diplegia (a condition which makes the muscles rigid, especially in the hips and legs; the knees are bent inwards and walking is difficult).  Phetkamon has 5 younger siblings, 4 sisters and the youngest is a brother.  Even though Phetkamon is 29, she is still single and lives with her family.  In a disrespectful voice she says she doesn’t have to have a family because living alone is more relaxed.  She is afraid of thieves, of men, of everything, and she is still building the confidence to live with someone else.  She keeps repeating throughout the interview that school was like a second home.  English was her favourite subject.  As soon as she finished studying she wanted to study languages further but now she is old, she hesitates however much in her heart she wants to be a language teacher.

Phetkamon has lots of things she wants to do from visiting a waterfall and the sea to leaving home and going to work alone.  She wants to study more and to learn to drive because she wants to get around without bothering anyone.  But people in the family put the brakes on this by telling her she’s raving.  ‘How can a disabled person drive?’  ‘You walk just a little way and you get tired; where can you go?’  During the interview the voice of her mother, her sister and her brother gradually got louder in opposition to the things Phetkamon was saying, like wanting to study further, live her own life or learn to drive.

The interviewer felt uncomfortable with this situation, unlike the interviewee.  Phetkamon said that these ideas are ‘normal’ in ethnic minority communities.  They don’t know anything about disability, they don’t understand or believe in their potential.  She is determined, as a disabled person, to study and doesn’t think about love.

In earlier days a Hmong man could kidnap a woman that he wanted to marry and raise a family with, by asking his friends to carry the woman off to his home.  When the people in the woman’s home saw that their daughter was missing, they knew this was a sign that she had been kidnapped.  The next day the man’s side had to bring the woman back home and ask for her hand as the end of the ceremony.  When a woman has undergone kidnapping, she must be cut off from her former home and go to live in her husband’s home.  Even if they separate, she cannot back to her parents’ home out of the belief that a daughter is like water in a bowl which, once it has been poured out, cannot be put back.  At present there are efforts to bring these women home by means of the so-called Phum ceremony or ‘accepting daughters back home’, which has two stages.  ‘Likai’ is notification to the elders and the ancestors that the woman has come back as a member of the household and encouragement through a welcome ceremony and blessing from the elders and tying a thread around the wrist so that the woman can return to her former home.

In earlier days a Hmong man could kidnap a woman that he wanted to marry and raise a family with, by asking his friends to carry the woman off to his home.  When the people in the woman’s home saw that their daughter was missing, they knew this was a sign that she had been kidnapped.  The next day the man’s side had to bring the woman back home and ask for her hand as the end of the ceremony.  When a woman has undergone kidnapping, she must be cut off from her former home and go to live in her husband’s home.  Even if they separate, she cannot back to her parents’ home out of the belief that a daughter is like water in a bowl which, once it has been poured out, cannot be put back.  At present there are efforts to bring these women home by means of the so-called Phum ceremony or ‘accepting daughters back home’, which has two stages.  ‘Likai’ is notification to the elders and the ancestors that the woman has come back as a member of the household and encouragement through a welcome ceremony and blessing from the elders and tying a thread around the wrist so that the woman can return to her former home.

The many days I spent with the Hmong and Pga K'nyau were just a short time that challenged the assumptions I had had about disabled women, both on the issue of building a family life and whether they have an identity.  Before, it was hard even to imagine what the life of disabled women from ethnic minorities was like.

This exploration of their world tour taught me that the disabled women in this area do not have no access to, or do not know about issues of sex, but they have ways of belief and ways of sex in a pattern of their own.  Also the ways of the ethnic minorities themselves do not obstruct the disabled from having relations, but this is a difficult matter for the disabled who want to leave their current path because they have little opportunity to study further, to work, or to tell their story to others.


[1] Study finds ethnic minority women most exploited, oppressed by ethnic culture-beliefs.  4 still waiting for nationality – no access to law.

http://transbordernews.in.th/home/?p=3867

[2] Identity increases one’s power to set one’s own way of life: the disabled leading a free life in Thai society.  Kamolpun Punpuing, 2010.

[3] Study finds ethnic minority women most exploited, oppressed by ethnic culture-beliefs.  4 still waiting for nationality – no access to law.

http://transbordernews.in.th/home/?p=3867

[4] Karen
http://impect.or.th/?p=15026

[5] Traditional beliefs that repeatedly oppress those who are sexually abused - the voice of ethnic minority women

https://prachatai.com/journal/2017/11/74279

[6] Special report: ‘Disabled women (1)’ Jinxed life, raped-sterilised

https://prachatai.com/journal/2016/10/68524

[7] Sexuality of the disabled: illusion and attitude

https://prachatai.com/journal/2009/05/23927

 

Source: 
https://prachatai.com/journal/2018/10/78993