Sia Her and Pheng Thao are speaking out about a marriage practice that has divided Minnesota's Hmong community.

Her has told state legislators about the local men who travel to impoverished villages in Laos and return with brides decades their junior, sometimes as young as 14. Thao has explained to social workers and state health officials about the abuse these relationships can breed — both toward young brides and first wives cast aside in their favor.

Some Laotian families with young daughters have come to see older Hmong-American men as a way out of extreme poverty. But increasingly, Her and Thao say, these international marriages can damage their community in the Twin Cities and overseas.

"Our community needs to take ownership of this issue," said Thao, a mental health practitioner and one of a growing group of male activists addressing the practice publicly. "The solutions have to come from the community, as well."

Advocates such as Her and Thao have hosted heated community discussions, produced public service announcements and lined up $200,000 from lawmakers to study abusive international marriages and other forms of gender-based violence. Now, an unprecedented lawsuit by a young Laotian woman, invoking federal laws against child sex tourism and trafficking, has brought new scrutiny to the issue. The woman, Panyia Vang, is seeking damages from the Minnesota man she says assaulted her and wed her in a cultural ceremony when she was 14.

Activists stress this practice is by no means limited to Hmong men, but it nevertheless merits soul-searching within the community.

A 'midlife crisis'

The older men and their young brides have been visible in the local Hmong community at least since the early 2000s. They started cropping up as some men were newly able to afford the trips to Laos, Thailand or China and the thousands of dollars it can take to court the young women, buy gifts for extended family members and in some cases pay marriage brokers.

Advocates stress they see nothing wrong with single Hmong-Americans seeking romance in their ancestral land. But a 2013 report by the Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence and activists in Wisconsin points to several factors that can set the stage for abuse: dramatic age differences of as much as 70 years, underage brides from rural areas who sometimes travel to the U.S. with forged birth certificates, and dishonesty about the men's marital status.

Bao Vang, the president of the nonprofit Hmong American Partnership, attributes these relationships to a "midlife crisis" in the community: A more educated, driven generation of Hmong women has challenged the traditional view of the obedient, domestic wife — and men, especially older ones, are chafing at the changes. But, though a patriarchal worldview and polygamy have played a part in the history of the Hmong people, activists reject the idea that these marriages are rooted in Hmong culture.

"These relationships are about abuse of power, not about culture," said Pa Der Vang, a professor at St. Catherine University who has studied Hmong teen marriages. "Men are going overseas and exploiting impoverished people who don't see another way out."

Complications from these relationships can hit families on both continents. Advocates say first wives, pressured to divorce their husbands legally if not culturally, can be trapped in their homes with the newlyweds or cast out to fend for themselves and their children. Children can struggle to relate to fathers newly married to women their age or younger. And overseas, families can pursue these relationships desperately for their daughters, warning them they would be disowned if they marry local men instead.

The nonprofit Asian Women United of Minnesota, which provides emergency shelter and other services to domestic abuse victims, has served more than 100 women affected by these relationships in the past four years — both first wives and young women, including former teenage brides who married men in their 50s or older. Not all of them were Hmong — more than a dozen countries were represented — and some of the worst abuse involved white Minnesotans who brought over much younger wives from Asia, says Executive Director Claudia Waring.

Waring said the center sees young brides who were physically abused or pressured to have more children than they want. Many were kept in relative isolation and forced to care for large extended families — "essentially enslavement," Waring says.

"For these women, making the choice to leave is an extraordinarily brave thing to do," she said. "They are leaving not just a guy, but their entire community."

Starting to speak out

Thao has been told he's not a "real man" and that he is betraying fellow Hmong men by criticizing the practice. Her, executive director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, says she has been "asked very nicely" to stop talking about this issue.

But more are joining them in speaking out.

In 2013, advocates in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California launched a campaign called Building Our Future, a bid to combat domestic violence and abusive international marriages, which organizers called "an epidemic that is creating havoc for families."

That same year at St. Catherine University, about 30 students gathered to talk about navigating their fathers' new relationships; some said they have seen fathers ask their sons or other young relatives to marry their girlfriends overseas so they can come to the United States. A 2014 vigil at Hmong American Partnership's St. Paul office drew more than 200 people, Bao Vang said.

This year, campaign organizers focused on reaching out to allies outside the community. They put on training sessions for social workers and mainstream domestic violence advocates. They invited Ramsey County Attorney John Choi to sit on a panel last weekend at Hmong Village in St. Paul.

When a local Hmong talk show host recorded a diatribe against divorced women this year and called on viewers to chip in $500 each so men can seek more pliable wives in Laos, a male activist taped a video rebuttal that drew more than 40,000 views on YouTube. Men also denounced abusive international marriages in several public service announcements produced in St. Paul.

Meanwhile, several women affected by international marriages testified in support of a bill that earmarked $200,000 for a two-year study by the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans and the Minnesota Department of Health, the first to look at international marriages in the community, among other issues.

Advocates have referred several dozen women, both first and second wives, to Civil Society, a St. Paul legal nonprofit.

Civil Society lawyer Linda Miller filed a suit on behalf of Panyia Vang, now 22, who says a Twin Cities man sexually assaulted her before a cultural wedding ceremony in Laos. The suit is seeking $450,000 in damages from the man, who in court records said he had consensual sex with a woman he thought was 17 at the time.

Advocates say women are caught between seeking legal help at the risk of getting branded a bad wife in the community — and appealing to clan leadership, which has traditionally counseled women to be patient and forgiving.

Zongleng Pha, president of the Hmong 18 Clan Council, the Minnesota clan leadership body, did not respond to requests for comment. Her said the council can play a key role in shifting the community conversation.

"Clan leaders should stand up and say, 'This practice is hurting our families,' " Her said.

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781