Although the Hmong prefer boys to girls, this does not mean that the girls are not appreciated. Girls are also assets to the family because they bring bride wealth into their family. The payment of bride wealth, culturally known as the debt for ‘milk and food’, ties a woman to her husband and his lineage for her lifetime. Upon marriage all rights to her labor, sexuality, and reproduction are transferred from her natal family to her husband’s (Symonds, 1991:114).
Bride wealth consists of silver bars. In the two villages under study, the bride wealth is normally four or five silver bars, equal to about 15,000 Baht, almost 380 U.S. dollars. However, rich families may pay more if they wish, while a poor family may pay less or need not pay anything if the bride’s parents agree. The institution of bride wealth should not be regarded simply as the buying and selling of women. It constitutes social insurance for women. If a wife is abandoned or mistreated by her husband, bride wealth cannot be demanded back after she returns to her parents’ family. However, if a wife misbehaves or commits adultery, her husband has the right to divorce her and insist on the return of the bride wealth.
The Hmong choose a marriage partner with great care. Divorce was rare in the past. Hmong women would not like to divorce even if they had been mistreated. “if divorce occurs, it is almost always assumed the woman is the problem” (Symonds, 1991:114 ). Nowadays, the rate of divorce has increased due to drug crime and domestic violence. Villagers can reasonably consider a divorce event and do not think divorce is always the woman’s fault. Women may divorce more readily. There was a case in Maesa Mai village in 2001 in which a woman, who was over 40 years of age, got a divorce because her husband was a drug user and often hit her. This case may indicate that the Hmong women are now conscious about their rights.
In Hmong society, a man may have more than one wife at the same time, but a woman may have only one husband. Although the majority of families remain monogamous, polygyny is still practiced. The reasons for this are 1) if a wife remains infertile or does not bear a son, a second wife will be taken into the household; 2) offsprings are needed for work in the field and more wives mean more offsprings to help in farming; and 3) large families are marks of social status for men. Because of the requirement of a substantial bride price, only a wealthy man can have two or more wives (Cooper, et al. 1996:13). However, in the field research sites some men take more than one wife even if they are not rich.
In polygamous families, theoretically the first wife has a privileged position more than the other wives under the authority of the husband. However, that depends on the situation. In one polygamous case in Maesa Mai village a man, at the age of 38, took five wives. His first wife remains in charge of household matters and