More Complex Relationships

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADealing with marital relationships, or the relationships between partnered but unmarried women and men, is one of the critical parts of a CLM case manager’s work. Safine’s struggle out of extreme poverty, and that of other women like her, is made more difficult by the drag on their progress that uncooperative partners create. (See: Complex Relationships.) Other women have a much more reasonable chance at success, in part because of husbands or partners who are willing to work hard beside them. (See: Elienne and Odak for an example.)

So we try to to help couples establish good relationships. But I never would have expected that our efforts would lead me to spend part of Sunday evening in a beauty salon in downtown Mirebalais.

I went to the beauty salon with two case managers, Christian Louizia and Sandra Julien. We had gone to ask for help dealing with one of Christian’s CLM members, a woman named Memène, who lives in Demare, a farming community behind the Labasti market. The relationship between Memène and her partner Chiver has been a key issue for Christian for several months, and we do not feel as though we have made much progress.

They are a young couple. Memène is 22, and Chiver is a few years older than that. Each has a small child, but both children are from previous relationships. They do not yet have a child together. When we met them, they were living in a very dilapidated shack with a roof of dried, cracked palm fronds, on a plot of Chiver’s father’s land. The land has several equally dilapidated homes on it, including the father’s, and more than one of the households qualified for CLM. It is an especially poor little neighborhood.

We were troubled when, early on in our engagement with the couple, we heard reports of violence. Chiver was beating Memène severely enough that their neighbors were worried. Tikomè, another CLM member who lives just down the path from them, had pulled Christian aside. Tikomè is the members’ representative on the Village Assistance Committee, and she has started taking her responsibilities seriously. She asked Christian to do something. “He’ll kill her,” she said.

Christian rushed to meet with Memène, and she explained how it was that Chiver ended up losing his temper most recently. He spoke with Chiver as well. After some conversation, Memène decided to leave Chiver. She’d move back in with her mother, who is also a CLM member. It seemed like the obvious thing to do. They would be able to build their houses next to each other on the mother’s land. But Memène didn’t want Chiver prosecuted. Maybe it had to do with the fact that what separated her from her daughter’s father was that he had been sent to prison for theft. Maybe she was afraid of what he might do if he was arrested but wasn’t sent to jail. We were sorry that she wasn’t willing to press charges, but saw it as her choice. Christian planned the move with them both, and Chiver agreed to turn over the livestock CLM had given her, which he had been caring for.

Christian was surprised when he went by a few days later and found Memène back in the house with Chiver. He made sure it was what she wanted. That was about all that he could do. But hearing her say that it was, he talked to Chiver about how important it was that he stop using violence. Christian asked me to come talk to them, too.

So I went by and we had a long conversation. I quick got the impression that they really did want to stay together. Memène talked about the one time that someone from Chiver’s family had been nasty to her. One of his sisters had said some really ugly things that culminated in her naming a pig with an unflattering nickname she had used for Memène. When Chiver came home after his day in the fields and heard what had happened, he was furious, screaming at his sister and mother, who had taken sides with her daughter, and threatening to kill the pig. His father took up Chiver’s side of the argument, and the two women agreed that they had been wrong. They apologized to Memène. But the crucial thing was that Chiver had stuck up for her. And Memène was the one who told me the story. Chiver, for his part, kept insisting that Memène could go if she wanted to, but he was near tears. You could tell he didn’t really mean it.

When I told Chiver that hitting his wife could get him arrested, he started talking about all the things she does to make him lose his temper. Some of those things would have made me mad, too.

I do not blame the victim. All the violence is entirely his fault. She doesn’t force him to hit her. But Memène says some very mean things.

So I cut him off. I put my arm around him because I wanted to ensure that I had his full attention and I wanted him to feel that my intentions were friendly. And I told him that he needed to understand that if he was arrested for hitting his wife, the judge would not listen to his story about the things Memène had said or done. I wanted him to understand that, as soon as he hit her, the court would automatically look at him as the one in the wrong. Even if he was right to be angry – and I didn’t doubt that he sometimes was – he was always wrong to be violent. And I added that he didn’t need to take my word for it. He could ask any of his friends or neighbors. One of the members of our Village Assistance Committee was there, a man not much older than Chiver, and he chimed in to support what I was saying.

I tried to keep my tone friendly but unambiguous. As long as Memène chose to stay with Chiver, I couldn’t let him think of the CLM program as a threat because she and the children would be better off if he continued to collaborate well with Christian. I was inclined to think that she should get out of the house, but it had to be her decision, and she wasn’t making it.

The peace we established that day held up for almost six weeks. And the couple accomplished a lot during that time. They installed their latrine, they put the tin roof on their house, and they began to build up their wealth by taking very good care of their livestock. Chiver added a pig to what we had given them. He bought with money he earned through day labor. The six months of weekly stipends that we gave them took enough pressure off his meager earnings that he was able to invest some of what he brought in.

I went by every week or so just to check in and to see how they were doing, and I always got friendly greetings from both. They were still arguing, but Chiver would call Christian whenever he felt he was losing his temper. He knows he is hot-headed. Christian would go help them work things out. Their relationship was becoming a big part of his job.

But about a week ago, Christian got word that Chiver had attacked Memène again. Memène told him that Chiver had hit her and kicked her. This time, she said she really wanted to leave him. Christian talked with them both to arrange the separation because he wanted to ensure both that Memène would feel safe and that she would keep all the assets we had helped her accumulate.

By this point, however, things had gotten a little complicated. For example, the couple had built their house by putting her roofing material on a structure that was already his, on land that belongs to his family. They had also used CLM money to pay the skilled labor that installed the roof and built up the stone walls which replaced the original mud-and-sticks ones. We couldn’t get the skilled labor back. That money had been spent. But Christian and Chiver calculated how much Chiver would have to pay Memène if he kept the roofing material, and he agreed to the sum. It would be more sensible that removing the roof and returning the material to her. Chiver and Christian even created a realistic payment plan.

We thought we had things worked out. But when push came to shove, Memène decided, once more, to stay with Chiver. This only proved that Christian and I were in over our heads, that we didn’t know how to help Memène.

And it’s why we ended up in a beauty parlor. The beauty parlor’s owner and head beautician is Minouche, and she is the one we had come to see. The Haitian government includes an important ministry that is especially charged with seeing to the affairs of women. It’s called the Ministère des Conditions Féminines, and it has representatives throughout Haiti. They organize women’s groups and special activities and celebrations for women. They advocate for issues especially important to women. And they work closely with local police and courts to protect women from abuse. We needed both expertise and clout, and we went to Minouche hoping that she’d be able to provide them.

She said that she’d be happy to help out. She’d had heard of our work, had been admiring it from a distance, and was glad contribute.

Christian made sure that Memène and Chiver would be a home Tuesday afternoon, and we brought Minouche to their home in Demare in a CLM truck. She spent almost three hours with the couple.

She began by introducing herself, her office, and her role. She was there, she said, neither for Memène nor for Chiver. Her job was to help them both solve the problems they had with each other. If the solution was separation, she would help them through that process step-by-step, guaranteeing the Memène would get all the protection she needed. If they wanted to stay together, she would help them figure what they each would need to do to make that work.

One of the issues we regularly face in dealing with the two of them is that Chiver is very comfortable talking and Memène is not. He is both friendly and outgoing. Though he started angrily, showing that he resented our having turned him in, that anger passed before he even finished his first set of explanations. To Minouche’s pointed question as to whether he wanted Menène to stay with him so that they could spend the rest of their lives together, he finally said that he did, though it took him a lot of avoidance before he could get to that point. When she asked him what Memène would have to change for him to feel as though he could make their partnership work, he said that the only thing about her that he could not accept is that she leaves the house for hours at a time with letting him or anyone else know where she is going. He repeated several times that this was the only thing. Minouche was careful to say that she agreed with him that neither husband nor wife should wander off without letting the other know.

Minouche now passed to Memène, and this is when her work started to get hard. Memène is shy. She still has trouble even looking at people whom she isn’t used to, let alone talking to them. But Minouche persisted. When she asked Memène whether she wanted to stay with Chiver, Memène initially said that she didn’t. Asked to explain, she said that he kept hitting her. Minouche then asked her whether, if we could change that about him, she would want to stay with him. And she said that she did.

This took some persuasion on Minouche’s part. She talked about Chiver’s good qualities, and how easily Memène could end up with a partner who was much worse, always agreeing, however, that Chiver would have to stop hitting her.

Talking to Memène took a lot of time, both because she was reluctant to speak and because Chiver kept interrupting to defend himself. The more he defended himself, the more heated he became. And as he became heated and louder, a crowd of neighbors began to gather, ready to enjoy the spectacle. Minouche started to get frustrated, put off by the regular interruptions our spectators’ laughter and commentary produced, so she had us move into the one-room house. There was no space for chairs inside, but there is a larger bed for the two of them and a smaller one for the kids. We sat on the beds and continued to talk.

The more we talked, the more we learned that there were issues we needed to face beyond what they each were initially willing to admit. On Chiver’s side, the most serious thing was that Memène was always hurting his feeling with things she would say. He didn’t put things that way, but he didn’t need to. He was on the verge of tears several times as he talked of times that her words had cut him to the quick. On Memène’s side, she talked more and more of her little girl. Though Chiver repeated said he had two children in the home – his son and Memène’s daughter – and that both felt like his, Memène complained that he didn’t treat them equally, and that when he was angry he would use terribly ugly words to yell at her girl.

Minouche had succeeded at getting to a deeper layer of their conflict, so she asked them once more, at this more serious level, whether they wanted to spend their lives with each other. Chiver affirmed that he did, but Memène had a hard time answering.

Here I interrupted to ask her and Minouche whether it might be better if Chiver and I left so that they could talk privately, woman to woman. Minouche thanked me, and so I led Chiver back out of the house. He took me down to look at their pigs.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When Minouche call us back in, she said that Memène had agreed to stay with Chiver. She explained that she would create an agreement between them, specifying the conditions each would have to respect in order to make their relationship work. They each would sign the agreement and she would file it in her office and in the courthouse in Mirebalais. This took a few more minutes. It was getting dark as we got in the truck to head back to Mirebalais.

We don’t know whether Minouche’s intervention will prove successful. We have our doubts. Christian believes that the couple will split eventually, and we just hope that, if they do, we can facilitate a split that is safe and that leaves Memène the best possible chance at future success. We hope that making them feel that they live in a community with laws they must abide by will help them find their way to a good future, whatever that future might turn out to be.