|Hoàng Văn Thương on his farm in Hoàng Su Phì District of the northern Hà Giang Province. — VNS Photo Bảo Hoa|
by Bảo Hoa
HÀ GIANG — When he married his cousin some 20 years ago, Hoàng Văn Thương of the Tày ethnic minority in Hà Giang Province did not know how badly his marriage would affect his child.
When Thương was 13, his parents brought his cousin to their house and they started living together. It wasn’t until some four or five years later that they actually wed.
“Our parents were probably sipping tea together when one of them said: ‘Hey, how about you letting your daughter come live at my place?’” Thương said, explaining how natural and simple his parents’ generation considered marriage among cousins.
Now a forty-something farmer, Thương has two sons, 26 and 24. The younger is developmentally impaired and can’t take care of himself.
“Sometimes he understands what I say, sometimes he doesn’t,” Thương said. “If I want him to help with a chore, I have to show him how to do it again and again.”
Consanguineous marriage was a common practice among the ethnic minorities in Hà Giang Province. They believed that if they did not marry outside their families, they would not have to share their assets with others.
Asked whether the fact that his wife was his uncle’s daughter had anything to do their son’s condition, Thương said: “Probably.
“I knew we were related but I did not know what we were doing was wrong,” he added.
Cao Xuân Ch. and Cao Thị V. of the Rục ethnic minority in Quảng Bình Province’s Thượng Hóa Commune are another example of consanguineous marriage. The husband is his wife’s uncle.
Their oldest child died when he reached first grade. The youngest, whose hands are always trembling, weighs only 10 kilograms at the age of four.
“She cries all the time,” V. told Tiền Phong (Vanguard) about his daughter. “I keep feeding her but she is not getting bigger. Her hair is not growing, either.”
According to a 2012 survey by the General Office for Population and Family Planning, 11 per cent of the 558 inbred children in the northern province of Lào Cai had either mental illness or disabilities such as deafness, blindness and paralysis, or physical abnormalities such as lack of pigmentation.
Some 23 per cent of the total population of the northern Hòa Bình Province’s Kim Bôi District carried the gene for a blood disorder called Thalassemia as a result of inbreeding, according to the office’s research in 2009.
The 2009 national population and housing census showed that 16 ethnic minorities in the country had less than 10,000 people, including La Hủ, La Ha, Pà Thẻn, Lự, Ngái, Chứt, Lô Lô, Mảng, Cờ Lao, Bố Y, Cống, Si La, Pu Péo, Rơ Măm, Brâu, Ơ Đu.
They were the main targets of a 2013 decision by the Ministry of Information and Communication to implement an emergency plan to eradicate such customs among ethnic minorities while preserving their race and culture.
A socio-economic survey by the Committee for Ethnic Minority Affairs (CEMA) in 2014 showed that high consanguineous marriage rates persist amongst extremely poor ethnic minorities, such as the Mạ (4.4 per cent of the population older than 12 and married), Mảng (4.4 per cent), M’nông (4.02 per cent) and Xtiêng (3.7 per cent).
Vũ Thế Phương, chief of the Hoàng Su Phì District’s People’s Committee, said the practice is such a personal matter to the ethnic people that the authorities have to be delicate when tackling it.
“Don’t try to ‘scare’ them with financial penalties – they don’t like it,” he said.
“Face-to-face communication is the most effective tool,” he added. “We try to make them understand how unhealthy the practice is for them so that they stop perpetuating it in a voluntary manner.”
Nguyễn Viết Bình, a district culture official, said that in most cases, simple conversations were not strong enough to persuade ethnic people to abandon the practice.
“We had to ask a shaman to come with us to their houses, do the ancient time calculation in front of them and tell them that it is not the ‘right time’ to get married.
“Shamans have high credibility and big influence on the locals. Their faith and respect for the shaman make them believe him,” he said.
Apart from the low education level of the ethnic people, most of whom only finished 9 out of 12 grades, language barrier is another obstacle that hinders the communication process. Sometimes Bình has to ask someone who speaks the ethnic language to be his interpreter.
Ten cases of consanguineous marriages were found in the district in the 2011-15 period. None was found during the first nine months of this year.
A proposal to curb consanguineous and child marriages amongst ethnic minorities in the northern mountainous areas and central highlands was approved by the Government in April last year. One of the project’s objectives is to “reduce the number of consanguineous marriages by 3-5 per cent per year in the regions where the consanguineous marriage rate is high”.
Some of its tactics include raising awareness among ethnic people through information conferences, seminars and discussions, as well as organising cultural exchange events and festivals to provide opportunities to find partners from different regions.
Due to limited resources, the project was only able to disseminate information on mass media during the first year of implementation, according to Nguyễn Thị Tư, director general of CEMA’s Department of Ethnic Minorities.
It is hoped that the ministries, international organisations and local authorities will be more “actively involved” in the project in the coming years, she said. — VNS