Kabzuag Vaj’s story begins like that of many other Hmong Americans who immigrated to this country. As a child, she arrived in the U.S. as a refugee with her mother and siblings. She spoke no English, had few resources, and life was difficult, but at 15 years old she began working to empower and organize her community. Last Thursday, she was honored by the White House as a “Champion of Change” for her work to eradicate domestic violence. This honor is a testament to her courage, dedication, and passion for serving low-income immigrant communities. I am proud to support my friend as she is honored for her work during Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
I first met Kabzuag many years ago when we were starting our careers as advocates for Southeast Asian American, particularly Hmong American, communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Over a million Southeast Asian American refugees were resettled in the United States from 1975 to 2002—a large percentage making their new home in these Midwestern states. The Hmong had fought alongside American troops in Laos during the war in Southeast Asia, and they were brought to the U.S. as refugees when a Communist government took over the country in 1975 and began persecuting the Hmong for their allegiance to America. Because of their history as refugees, and because of their relatively recent arrival to this country, the community continues to face high rates of poverty and other issues including barriers to education and health access.
Kabzuag now serves as Executive Director of Freedom, Inc., a grassroots organization that advocates for and serves low-income communities of color in Madison, Wisconsin. The organization, which she also co-founded, looks at root causes of violence—particularly violence against women, children, and gender non-conforming people—and finds ways to prevent violence by offering empowerment, organizing, and leadership training to women, youth of color, and queer youth.
Like many other cultures, Hmong Americans rarely discuss domestic violence. Traditionally, Hmong marriage disputes are mediated by male relatives of the married couple and couples are usually compelled to stay together no matter how violent the situation. For women, going outside of this system to find help is an act of defiance and courage.
According to a study by the Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence, 41-61% of Asian women report experiencing physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Moreover, a significant percentage of Asian American children are also exposed to domestic and family violence—60% of Cambodians, 61% of Chinese, 80% of Koreans, and 72% of Vietnamese report experiencing physical abuse as children.
For years, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women like Kabzuag have been an integral part in ensuring that the anti-domestic violence movement includes the voices and experiences of AAPI women and advocating for culturally and linguistically appropriate responses for our communities. While we honor Kabzuag and all the “Champions of Change,” let us also remember the struggles and contributions of all AAPI women who have, over the years, worked tirelessly to find an end to domestic violence.
Doua Thor serves as a Commissioner for the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.