2015 Changemakers: Panyia Vang, Linda Miller & Sia Her

Sia Her, Panyia Vang and Linda Miller
Photograph by Mary Turck

“I am hopeful that some day, some time, there will be women who feel that my story has awakened in them the strength, the courage to also step forward to speak for themselves.”
— Panyia Vang

When Panyia Vang was 14 years old, living in rural Laos, she dreamed of a music career. When Hmong American visitors promised her a chance at making music video, she went with them on a 12-hour journey to Vientiane, the capital city. There her dreams were brutally ended.

A man three times her age raped her in a hotel room. When she escaped, he recaptured her and raped her repeatedly, though she was crying and bleeding. She became pregnant and was forced into a “cultural” Hmong marriage with her rapist.

Nine years later, Vang is suing him under “Masha’s Law,” a federal law protecting victims of sex tourism and child sex trafficking.

Telling her story takes courage. Her family pleaded with her not to go public. Many people in the Hmong community are angered by her speaking out. “Some people accuse me of being a liar,” she says. “I have been cursed repeatedly.”

Nevertheless, she says, “I am hopeful that some day, some time, there will be women who feel that my story has awakened in them the strength, the courage to also step forward to speak for themselves.”

Sia Her, director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, has been a strong voice on this issue, even though it’s a contentious one in her community. She explains that a “good Hmong daughter” always listens to her parents and doesn’t go against what the family says.

Her said, “It takes a lot of courage on her part to say, ‘Even though this is what my elders are saying, and even though they are coming from a place of good intentions, I still am going forward.'”

Vang is represented by Linda Miller, the director and founder of Civil Society, which has represented and advocated for victims of human trafficking for almost 20 years.

Miller’s legal career has focused on human rights, including work in the public defender’s office, sexual harassment cases, and representation of juveniles abused in group homes.

Civil Society has represented about 60 other Hmong women referred by the Association for the Advancement of Hmong Women. Vang’s is the first civil case in the U.S. brought under Masha’s Law.

“Masha’s Law allowed Vang to sue in federal court,” Miller says. “It is extraordinary because the victim is here in Minnesota and was able to bring the case here in Minnesota. This lawsuit is the first one of its kind.” With all the essential elements of the case either admitted or proved in court, at press time they were awaiting decision on a motion for summary judgment.

Vang says she has a message for very young girls in Laos and Southeast Asia: they should be very cautious when Hmong men from the United States come to them promising happiness, wealth and love.

She also has a message to the men who travel for sex tourism. “I want them to know that they are hurting the reputations of Hmong Americans in Laos.” Instead of victimizing children abroad, she said, “I encourage you to love and respect your wives here and take care of your families here.”

Vang’s courage in telling her story and seeking justice, Miller’s creative and committed legal advocacy and Her’s advocacy on issues with the Asian-Pacific community have broken the silence about sexual abuse in the Hmong community.

Learn more about Civil Society at www.civilsocietyhelps.org