Domestic Violence

Men who beat or threaten their wives or life-partners are an important and difficult problem for our program. Our core strategy is to help women develop independent and sustainable sources of income. Such independence can position women to escape from some violence. But it can also increase the threat of violence, because men can feel threatened by that very independence.

It’s not that domestic violence is especially common among the families we work with. I have no reason to think that it’s either more or less common than it is in other segments of the population, whether those other segments are in Haiti or somewhere else. I don’t have the data. But we have to address the cases we come across, because our program simply cannot succeed unless we do.

I’ve written of Ifania and Grenn, a case in which we were able to intervene with great success. (See: Dele Gasyon.) Grenn is now among the most enthusiastically cooperative husbands we deal with. He worked hard to help Ifania build her house, has defended her loyally in the face of his mother’s jealous interference with her progress, and helps her take good care of her animals. Some stories have happy endings.

I’ve also written about Oranie Pierre. (See: Oranie Pierre.) We haven’t really been able to work things out for her. We want to put her husband in jail, but it requires her agreement. Every time she’s on the verge of asking us to help her do so, he disappears for a couple of days and then returns, less violent. She then decides that she’d like to give him another chance.

And it’s not as though arresting him would be easy. Oranie lives far from anywhere that police regularly go. And the way their home is situated, offering a clear view of the approaching paths, he would have an easy time clearing out if he felt threatened. Police couldn’t approach without his seeing them. So his neighbors would have to arrest him first and deliver him to the police. But they’re a little afraid of him too.

So Oranie continues to move forward, but her progress is fragile. We can’t know when or whether a new act of violence will set her back again. What is certain is that we have to keep working at these problems wherever we encounter them. And we have to grasp at whatever means we can find.

Santiague must be in his 70s. He’s a short, slightly tubby man, with what always looks like a few days’ growth of thin, greyish-white beard. He’s not very distinguished looking, but appearances proverbially deceive. I know him mainly through his daughter, Menmenn. She’s a woman, about my age, who works as the cook and housekeeper at the residence we share with the Partners in Health staff in Bay Tourib.

Menmenn is also a leader in the Bay Tourib community. She’s one of the founders of O.D.B., the Organization for the Development of Bay Tourib, which is the peasant group that originally invited Partners in Health to open a clinic in their town and then worked hard to help us get our work started, too. As one of the most comfortably literate of its founders, she serves as the group’s secretary. People look to her. Her opinions matter. Her grandparents raised her, and they must have made a commitment to her education beyond what other Bay Tourib parents were offering their girls.

Santiague first came to my attention the day we inaugurated CLM in Bay Tourib. We held a large celebration. More than 1000 people attended. In all the confusion, Partners in Health’s most senior representative lost her camera and her cellphone.

“Lost” is a euphemism. They were in her bag, which she put down for a moment. When she went back to the bag, the camera and phone were gone. One of my colleagues got on the PA system we had set up for the event, explained to the crowd that someone had “accidently” picked up the telephone and the camera, and asked that they be returned. He said that we were certain that it was a mistake and that we would not ask any questions of the person who returned them.

Nothing much happened.

When Santiague got wind of the theft, he told us to give him the mike. He said, “Whoever took the foreigner’s stuff: If it’s not brought to me by the end of the week, whatever happens to you is your own fault. I’m the one telling you that.” Both camera and phone turned up the next day.

To influence the goings on in a community sometimes requires finding someone who has real clout. In Bay Tourib, Santiague has clout. Santiague is a gangan, a practitioner of Vodou. His authority is probably based to some degree on the wisdom he is felt to have as an elder in the community, but it’s probably also based on the belief that he has special powers to do his neighbors good or harm.

We thought of Santiague when we were facing a difficult problem. We had two CLM members, Yveroselène and Roselène, who were being beaten by their husband. Each has what counts for a house, but they are both partnered with the same man, Jelik. In fact, he has a third wife as well, Dieukifaite. They live in three separate houses in the same yard. All of them are CLM members.

Jelik was beating both Yveroselène and Roselène. He has beaten Dieukifaite in the past, but hasn’t done so lately. It is not hard to imagine why Jelik would feel threatened by our program. He has three wives, and can support none of them. Meanwhile, our program gives them a real chance to learn to take care of their children and themselves.

We first tried to address the man himself. When we spoke to Jelik, he told us to mind our own business.

Then we spoke to the KASEK, an important local elected official. Since there are no police in the more rural areas, the KASEKs generally are to some degree responsible for law and order. He said he’d talk to the guy, but either he didn’t or he spoke with him to no effect.

The next time we heard that Jelik had beaten one of his women, we tried to confront him with numbers. A bunch of us hiked up to their home. But by the time we got there, he had disappeared.

A few days later, he was hanging around the Bay Tourib clinic. When we addressed him there, he swore at us rudely and boasted about how he would beat his wives whenever he wanted to. It was his right, he said, and none of our concern. It was even, he said, our fault, because since joining our program the women had gotten uppity.

So I asked Santiague to talk with him. I told Santiague that we needed help from someone the man respects. Santiague agreed to intervene, and the guy hasn’t struck his wives since. The last time he spoke to us, he said that he’s “not doing that anymore.”

The economic and social development that we aim to help our members achieve depends on many, many factors. But nothing can be achieved unless, at the very least, our members are safe from physical harm. Working towards that safety is a complicated job. Every case is different. We need to be willing to do whatever it takes to resolve these issues, and to be creative enough to find the places we can turn to for help.