Janie Her was kidnapped, chained and beaten by her husband in a violent seven and a half years of marriage. The 28-year-old Fresno woman survived.
But Zyang Vang, 33, wasn’t so lucky. She was gunned down by her ex-husband, Neng Moua, 43, on March 31 in the downtown Fresno pediatric office where she was an office assistant. Moua then turned the gun on himself.
The women have similar stories. Years of hitting, slapping, arguing, restraining orders, and death threats intermingled in a complex southeast Asian culture dominated by men and led by traditional family values that are hard to change.
“Domestic violence is a very shameful act,” said Summer Vue, who was a victim and a community activist. “Domestic violence exists in all races, all societies...the Hmong people are probably one of the last groups that has not learned how to talk openly about domestic issues.”
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The shooting turned the spotlight back on domestic violence and set off a whirlwind of reaction in Fresno and afar about how culture might play a role. At least two Fresno groups — an Asian Pacific women’s organization and concerned Hmong community members — are working to identify ways to help victims and stop the cycle of abuse.
Now is the time for change, advocates say.
Her is part of the local movement and is committed to telling her tale to help other victims.
“Every time I tell my story, I get stronger and stronger and stronger,” she said.
The hitting and slapping started when Her began dating Jerry Vue at 17. He gave her a black eye for not returning home from the mall when she was expected.
Four months into the courtship, the couple were married in the eyes of the Hmong community with a simple acknowledgment between family members. Her refused, but said her parents told her to “accept it because he loves you.” They never legally married.
She wasn’t allowed to go to school and Jerry Vue encouraged her not to work. Late night arguments and fights were common, often the result of Vue’s jealousy or need to be in charge, said Her who has had a gun held at her head more than once.
In summer 2011, Jerry Vue threw a birthday party for Her that ended in a jealous rage over who she was talking to. They were in a bedroom arguing and Vue had a knife. Her’s sister called the police. Officers questioned Her when they arrived, but she stood silent, her arms covered in old bruises, trading glances between her husband and her sister.
“My sister said just ‘tell him,’” Her said. “‘It’s not going to stop’ and then I told the cops everything.”
Her pressed charges against Vue and filed a restraining order. When he offered her a divorce to let the charges go, she said OK and recanted everything. He stayed away for 10 months.
They met again in the parking lot of an office supply store in June 2012 where their rocky relationship culminated in a kidnapping. Vue took Her to his house where she was beat, raped and chained by her feet. She managed to escape when Vue took her back to the store to get her car.
Vue evaded police until November 2013 when he was killed in a shootout near Sunnyside High School.
Fear and shame
Fear keeps many domestic violence victims from leaving. Shame holds them back from reporting beatings or pressing charges against abusers.
“I couldn’t leave because I needed to make sure my family was safe,” said Her, whose husband threatened to kill her and her family.
Then there were her traditional parents who made her believe that she couldn’t leave her husband. They told her that no other man would want to take care of her kids, Her recalled them say. The couple have four daughters.
She wasn’t comfortable seeking help from strangers at the Marjaree Mason Center in Fresno, a domestic violence agency that provides shelter and support services to victims. And a sense of obligation to remain in her marriage kept pulling her back although she has tried to run away. A divorce is only granted if both sides of the family agree. She later moved in with a friend.
The Marjaree Mason Center has Hmong-speaking employees to communicate with victims. Outreach efforts include presentations to elder groups, Hmong youth clubs, the Fresno State Hmong Club, and participating in community forums including the Hmong National Conference.
During the last fiscal year, 2% of the center’s clients identified themselves as being Hmong, said Rae Pardini, the director of development communication. The percentage is based on reported cases and those who choose to disclose information about themselves, she said.
“Think about the cases that aren’t reported,” Pardini said.
Xiamy Ly-Yang, who was a domestic violence counselor for nine years with the Sacramento Community Clinic, said her Hmong clients refused to report their husbands because they don’t want them arrested. The women also did not want their husband’s family to ostracize them, she said.
There is a lot of “fear our Hmong society will look down on the women,” said Ly-Yang, who is now the chief executive officer of a Fresno center for adults with disabilities.
30,000Hmong live in Fresno County, 2013 U.S. Census American Community Survey
Forty years ago, the Hmong came from a country where women had no rights and couldn’t even claim their own children if they divorced, said Summer Vue, the community advocate. “Even though we have more rights here and the laws change, the mindset and the issue remains the same.”
The pediatric office shooting was the result of a dispute over property, police said. Court records showed that the couple had a history of domestic abuse that preceded the deadly shooting.
Hmong experts have said a clash in culture mixed with marriages often involving young brides may result in divorce and violent break ups.
Fresno Hmong activist Steve Thao wants to change the way Hmong men think about relationships and women. He wants to create a men’s healing circle.
This is “an opportunity for Hmong men to really get together and help form a group and mentor young people,” Thao said. “We want to stand up for our community and nurture our young men in our culture.”
Thao organized community meetings in Fresno to talk first about the media’s coverage of the murder-suicide. Then, the meetings focused on domestic violence as the real issue, he said. Attendees talked about the power of men and solutions.
“At the table were young men and older men who were progressive enough to be part” of the discussion, Thao said. “My goal is to find some positive things that can come out of it…men and women talking about domestic violence. They can play a vital part in illuminating the issue in the Hmong community and the general community.”
The Central California Asian Pacific Women, a Fresno pan-Asian group committed to empowering women in the Central Valley, is creating an advisory group to help social service and government agencies tailor their services to help Hmong victims. The idea was born out of a domestic violence forum that the women’s group held in October at Fresno City College.
Her told her story at the forum alongside Lisa Smittcamp, who was her attorney at the time. Smittcamp is now the Fresno County District Attorney.
Representatives from agencies like the Fresno County District Attorney’s office, Fresno State, and the Marjaree Mason Center participated. Bo Thao-Urabe from Minnesota was also a guest speaker. She is one of the founders of the Building Our Future campaign to end domestic violence in Hmong communities worldwide.
The campaign has community builders in Fresno who held a candlelight vigil in honor of Zyang Vang days after she was killed.
“We know the Asian community, and Hmong people, don’t want to talk about domestic violence,” said the women’s group president Gena Lew Gong. “It’s very taboo.”
But domestic violence is an issue and the murder-suicide in March helped validate the need for solutions, she said.
“We didn’t see anything proactive happening,” Gong said. “We felt if anybody is going to do anything we should.”
Domestic violence in Asian and Pacific Islander homes
21%-55% of Asian women report (in various studies) experiencing intimate physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetime.
19.6% of Asian or Pacific Islander women reported in a 2010 survey experiencing rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. By comparison, 43.7% of black women, 37.1% of Hispanic women and 34.6% of white women reported intimate-partner violence in their lifetime.
160 domestic violence-related homicide cases between 2000 and 2005 in 23 states resulted in 226 deaths among Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander families.
78% of the homicide victims were women and girls, 20% were men and boys, 2% unknown.
72% of the deaths were adult homicide victims, 18% suicide deaths and 10% were children.
68% of the homicide victims were intimate partners — current, estranged, or ex-partners.