Inbreeding poses risks to ethnic groups
|Few members: The Si La people in Lai Chau Province are among 16 ethnic groups in Viet Nam with very small populations. — — VNS Photo Truong Vi
by Hong Thuy
Nearly everyone living in Yen Son Commune in Cao Bang Province knows Vi Van Don and his family, though they may have not spoken to them.
Don and Nong Thi Nhung were first cousins, but became husband and wife as per the wishes of their parents, who did not want the land of their ancestors to fall into the hands of outsiders.
The couple gave birth to five children. Three of them are handicapped, with abnormally small heads, bulging eyes, deformed limbs and stunted growth.
Deprivation caused by bearing too many children and lack of food are reasons behind the children's weak muscles and deformed legs, which has made walking a difficult task for them.
As they were too poor to provide the basic necessities for their children, their second child died of malnutrition and illness.
Except their second youngest daughter who is developing normally, the rest of them suffer retarded growth and cannot speak although they may comprehend what others are saying.
The eldest son, Vi Van ong, is able to speak one word which is easy to pronounce in Nung language and is interpreted as 'death'.
For most parents their children give their lives purpose, infuse fun and pride in their existence. Unfortunately for Nhung, the mother of these five children, it is a feeling of remorse and pain that pervades her life for having given birth to such unhealthy children.
"If I had known about the consequences, I would have never married my first cousin," Nhung said in tears.
"Now the damage is done and cannot be undone. We already have children, so I cannot abandon him or leave my children."
Marriage between first cousins is a customary practice in many communities in Cao Bang Province and Nhung's case is no exception.
Chairman of commune People's Committee Nong Dinh Quy reported four similar cases in Yen Son Commune. One child in a family was born deaf and dumb. The other two couples are newly married and have not yet had children.
Though cases of marriages between first cousins have reportedly come down in Cao Bang Province, the actual numbers are almost impossible to calculate and that poses a challenge to relevant agencies here.
Statistics released by the provincial demographic office showed there were two marriages between first cousins in the first six months of this year. Five couples married in 2013 and six in 2012.
Contrary to the province's 2013 figure, the General Department of Population and Family Planning revealed that marriage between cousins was up to 23 last year in Cao Bang.
Funding constraints and the shortage of population workers is preventing the province from collecting the actual number of consanguineous marriages, said demographic office director Luc Thi Thang.
Cao Bang is among 25 provinces nationwide that receives support from the General Department of Population and Family Planning to control cousin marriages.
Yet, only 12 out of 199 communes in the province have got that support.
"Current figures are only a tip of the iceberg since many cases go unreported," she pointed out.
It is also the fear of losing credit for not achieving given goals that has prevented authorities at the grassroots level from publicising the real number of such marriages in their communities, Thang added.
Like it or not, such marriages still take place among ethnic communities in mountainous provinces of the north, the northwest and the Central Highlands, according to Deputy Director of the Population Structure and Quality Department Nguyen Xuan Truong.
Marriages between cousins were reported in 15 mountainous provinces last year, with the highest number recorded in the provinces of Ha Giang (60 couples), Gia Lai (27), Cao Bang (23), Son La (22), Yen Bai (18) and Ninh Thuan (11).
Compared with the 2012 figures, statistics of the General Department of Population and Family Planning indicated that there was a decrease in cousin marriages in the provinces of Lai Chau, Dak Lak, Dak Nong and Lam Dong, among others.
This, however, contradicts the trend of an increase in such marriages in Ha Giang, Gia Lai, Cao Bang, Son La and Yen Bai.
Despite this, the results are insufficient, and there is currently no nationwide survey on the issue, even though there are various reasons attributed to the existence of this backward customs.
Ethnologist/Professor Khong Dien said some ethnic groups prefer marriages between first cousins because they think that organising the wedding will be less costly and relationships between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law would be much more harmonious.
This type of marriage is common among Lo Lo ethnic people, he said.
For the Si La ethnic community, cousin marriages are unavoidable because they are very few in numbers and are living in fairly close proximity to each other.
In addition to this are hereditary intermixed relationships between Si La families that limit the opportunities for young people to choose their partners of the same age groups from other communities, Dien said.
A link between such marriages and health problems including innate deformity, hereditary diseases like Thalassaemia (an inherited blood disorder), dwarfism and daltonism is not well-known to many ethnic people, Truong said.
Aggravating the situation is the fact that many ethnic people do not know that marriage is forbidden between people of the same blood line and between relatives within three generations, under the Marriage and Family Law.
Accordingly, marriage is forbidden between parents and children, between grandparents and grandchildren, between people who have the same roots -- parents, siblings, half-siblings, and cousins.
Poverty, isolated living conditions and impassable transport are also reasons leading to marriages between cousins among the Brau people, according to researcher Nguyen The Hue.
However, Quy said it was not just poverty and poor education that was the cause of consanguineous marriages, though most people tend to think so.
The case of Nhung and Don is a good example of how parents were more concerned about the safety of their properties rather than live in fear of poverty or worry about the future of their grandchildren.
In an attempt to reduce consanguineous marriage among ethnic groups, the Population general department has collaborated with 25 provinces nationwide to bring the matter under control.
Efforts are on to educate and disseminate information and leaflets about the issue, as well as providing free reproductive health-care services to ethnic people at commune clinics.
The project was first implemented in 2009 in the five provinces of Lai Chau, Son La, Cao Bang, Yen Bai and Dak Lak, where cases of cousin marriages were extremely high. In Cao Bang, for instance, there were 42 such marriages between first cousins in the same year.
Having been implemented more than four years ago, the project has helped most people in targetted areas understand that marrying blood relatives is forbidden and increases the risk of deformity and hereditary diseases among children.
"These are initial results only. We do need more time to change the customary practice," Truong said.
Many ethnic people still hold on to the belief that marrying blood relatives has been part of their tradition and custom, so local authorities have no right to forbid it.
This, along with a limited level of education and the shortage of trained population workers who can speak ethnic dialects, makes this dangerous practice difficult to stop.
Regarding the issue, Deputy Director of the Institute of Anthropology Nguyen Van Minh said it would be difficult to root out such marriages among ethnic groups unless the State helps them improve their living conditions and gain better access to education.
In addition, the prohibition of consanguineous marriages should take into account cultures and economic conditions in each locality.
Accordingly, local authorities should work with village elders and religious leaders to formulate their own rules about marriage and to cut down the practice of interbreeding. — VNS