One problem that Haiti shares with a lot of places is violence against women. It can take all sorts of forms, from subtle to non-too-subtle, from bad but mild to life-threateningly severe.
This violence presents a significant task for CLM. Even if we were to set aside fundamental principles like equal rights and fair treatment of women, even if we were to resist carrying out what could seem like a feminist agenda, the simple truth is that violence against women is a major source of the extreme poverty we’re trying to fight. Until women control reliable, independent sources of income, we will be unable to help them ensure that their families eat regularly and that their children are in school. In Haiti, women are typically the ones who take ultimate responsibility for the well being of the members of their household. Whether it is the woman or the man who manages to bring resources into the home – whether in cash or commodities – it is the women who turn those resources into food on the table and any other purchases that need to be made.
In homes where the women have to protect those resources from violent men who have their own agendas, the family suffers. Children get less to eat. Money for important other expenses gets diverted. Given that women are left with the responsibility for their children’s well being, they must have the power to make decisions about whatever resources are available. Even if violence against them were wrong for no other reason, it would still be dangerous because of the way it threatens a family’s livelihood. We take any violence against our members very seriously, and violence perpetrated by husbands is no exception.
So when Martinière received a call on Thursday night that Ifania, one of his members in an area called Nan Mango, had been beaten badly by her husband, we decided we had to act. We couldn’t go that night. The road to Nan Mango is hard in the best of times. It would have been almost unmanageable at night. But early Friday morning, four of us got on our motorcycles and went up to see what we could do. This delegasyon, or “delegation,” included Martinière, Orweeth, a very senior case manager named Lissage, and me. When we arrived, we found Ifania and Grenn, her husband, with over two dozen other community members of all ages, in front of the small straw shack where the couple lives with their two little boys. A few of the neighborhood’s older men suggested that we all sit around under the roof of the new house that CLM is helping the couple build. The support posts are up, and the tin roofing is in place. Only the walls remain to be filled in. It made for a nice, shaded meeting space.
Lissage did most of the talking for our team. In Creole, his name means “he’s wise,” or “he’s polite,” but everyone just calls him “S.” S explained that we do not permit our CLM members to behave badly towards their family members or neighbors, but that we will not accept their suffering any sort of abuse, either. CLM members are our sisters, our mothers, and our daughters as well. We stand by them. He said that we had come because we heard that Ifania had been beaten. We could see where her face and arm were swollen. We wanted to get to the bottom of things. He said that each would have a chance to tell their side of the story.
Ifania explained that the problem started when she discovered that 500 gourds she had hidden in her shack were missing. The discovery came, she said, just after Grenn had asked her for the same sum to help him get to Pòtoprens, where he had been offered a week of construction work. When she told him that she couldn’t give him the money, he got mad, but initially said nothing. Shortly thereafter, the money disappeared. When she noticed her loss, she looked through the house and discovered that not just 500, but 1500, gourds were missing. This was money she had been saving by putting aside a small portion of the 300-gourd stipend we give to members each week for the program’s first six months.
When she made the discovery, she confronted Grenn, but he denied having taken anything. She later went across the road to his mistress’s house, and asked her for the money. The mistress, rather than telling Ifania that she didn’t know what she was talking about, said that when a man gives her money, it’s hers to keep. That’s all that Ifania needed to hear, because it confirmed her suspicion that her husband had used some of the money as a gift for his other woman.
She started screaming, raising a ruckus. Grenn came and tried to drive her out of the other woman’s yard. In the struggle, Grenn hit her in the face. In the course of dragging her back to their house, he hurt her arm. When they got back, he continued to hit her, pushing her into and knocking down their shack. He then ran off to spend the night with his stepbrother. She found a kind, older neighbor, who helped her stand the shack back up so that she and her little boys would have a place to sleep.
Grenn’s version was different. He said that Ifania was making a lot of noise over nothing, that he hadn’t beaten her, that, on the contrary, she had fallen while trying to attack the other woman, and that she either lost the money or still had it because he didn’t know anything about it. He is the man, he said. He doesn’t take money from his wife. He gives it to her. He is the one who brought her the support posts and the planks that are being used to construct her new house. (CLM only provides the roofing material and a little cement.) He also has added a pig and a goat to the animals we have given her, and he takes care of both her animals and his own.
I’m making it all sound clearer and more orderly than it was. There were multiple interruptions. Three or four people would talk at once. A couple of times, Grenn seemed to want to leave, but S would call him back. Several times, Grenn would start shouting his defenses and explanations while others were talking. Once, S started to get fed up. He told Orweeth to go down the road, where he’d get a cellphone signal, and call the nearest justice of the peace. “Ask him,” he said, “whether we should bring Grenn to jail in Chanbo or Domon.” Grenn settled right down, and a couple of older men asked Orweeth to hold off.
After about an hour of discussion, S announced his decision. Grenn would have to give Ifania 1500 gourds. His reasoning was interesting. As I discovered later, he was completely convinced that Grenn had taken the money, but he said he couldn’t prove that Grenn had stolen it. He was careful to say several times that he was not accusing Grenn of theft.
Nevertheless, he argued that Grenn was responsible for its loss. After all, he explained, by taking a mistress right across the road from his wife’s house, Grenn was asking for trouble, especially since he wasn’t able to provide for Ifania and her children well. S said that he hadn’t come to tell anyone that they can’t have two or three or four wives, but you have to be able to give them what they need to live well. He cited a Haitian proverb, “Chenn grangou pa jwe.” That means, “a hungry dog doesn’t play around.” It was, he said, only natural that Ifania, living in poverty with their two boys, would be especially sensitive to signs that some of Grenn’s money was going somewhere else. If Ifania hadn’t been provoked by this – as, he said, any woman would – she would not have gotten angry enough to lose track of the money.
In addition to giving her the money, Grenn would have to take Ifania to the local hospital for a check-up, just to be sure the beating did her no serious harm. This would be his chance to take personal responsibility for her health.
Grenn accepted the ruling, and said he would sell his pig to give Ifania the money that very day. Here S did something especially smart: He refused to let Grenn make the sale, realizing that the pig was an asset that Grenn had already committed to supporting Ifania and her kids. Selling it to give her cash would not help her. Instead, S convinced Ifania to let Grenn owe her the money, paying her out of his earnings when he returned from Pòtoprens.
What was most striking in it all was the authority that S was able to wield. He has no official status in Nan Mango, or anywhere else for that matter, but he was accepted as judge and jury. One can’t help but feeling that if he had hiked up the hill on his own, things would have been different. But instead he came to a secluded, rural neighborhood at the head of a team of four men on motorcycles.
“Gwo ponyèt” means “big fist.” It’s used to refer to a show of force. My last words, after the matter was settled, and the only words I said at the meeting, were that as a foreigner it was not my place to make decisions for Haitians, but that my team’s job was to support families who are in a bad way. I added that if I needed to come up the mountain with four or five guys to do that, I would. If I needed ten or twenty or thirty, I’d do that too. It was meant to be taken as a threat, and I spoke it looking Grenn right in the eyes. I said that, as far as I understood things, he and Ifania had come to an agreement, but that nothing like this better happen again.
We then got up to leave, and were careful to shake hands with Grenn and wish him well. We may be naïve, but we are hoping that Ifania and he can patch things up. He and Ifania have been together for seven years, and Martinière has said that Grenn was previously one of the most cooperative of the husbands he works with. He helps take care of Ifania’s animals together with the one or two that he has added to their stock and is cheerfully helping her build her house. Martinière hasn’t seen signs of previous abuse, and none were mentioned at our informal trial. It is certain that Ifania will have a better chance to succeed with a partner’s help, so if, through a combination of coaxing and intimidation, we can get Grenn back on her side, it is likely to be for the best.