In recent reports, 30% of Haitian women have suffered acts of violence from partners or husbands. A third of surveyed Haitian women believe that a man may sometimes have the right to beat his spouse. Add to this that the Haitian justice system often victimizes the woman and rarely are charges brought forward. Unfortunately, these are not statements that are unique to Haiti; they are true for many developing world nations where women are often treated as second class citizens. Being an eyewitness to this reality for one woman during our most recent medical mission trip is much more moving than all the previous articles or books that I have read.
Unbeknown to the medical team, the woman had arrived at the hospital the night before after having suffered a stab wound in the back from her husband during a fight. Some family versions of the fight stated that she had started it by cutting her husband’s ear with a kitchen knife. The x-ray machine at our hospital was down due to remodeling, so the woman was sent across town to another hospital. She returned the following afternoon, in severe pain and with very labored breathing. I was flagged down by one of the Haitian family practice docs as we were packing our supplies for departure the next morning. Word of caution – If the American gynecologist can tell that something is wrong on your chest x-ray, you are probably in urgent need of medical attention as the last time I formally read a chest x-ray was 24 years ago. Her x-ray was significant for a collapsed lung on her left side and a fracture of her collarbone, caused by the knife wound in the back. She was fortunate to still be breathing but was at imminent risk of her heart shifting due to the collapsed lung. The team halted our packing duties and immediately shifted to duty mode. A few people were sent in search of a chest tube and vacuum device while others got the patient comfortable on the OR table. Events like this always make be proud to be part of a fabulous team – no job is too humble (ie searching among dusty shelves in a dark room with a flashlight for a chest tube) and individuals get comfortable dealing with tasks outside their specific expertise (ie gynecologist reading chest x-ray, dentist reading instructions on vacuum device and filling channels with water). Within an hour, the patient was breathing more comfortably and settled in her room, with strict instructions to her father to get help if the pump quit working. When the pump burnt out 11 hours later, he dutifully notified us and we substituted another pump. Two days later the chest tube was removed and the patient was discharged home – with her husband at her side. I am sure there was community discussion about her blame in the matter by starting the fight and at no time did she ask to press charges.
Studies have shown that domestic violence sharply decreases when the female partner is seen as a contributing financial partner to the household. If our patient had a small business and was increasing the family’s financial stability, her husband may have thought twice about wounding her with a knife, as it would impact her ability to work. Helping Haiti Work, a microloan program that my husband and I established in 2012, is attempting to right some of these imbalances for the women of Haiti. In my discussions with the loan recipients they have expressed that some of the indirect advantages of the program is that they are generally treated better by their spouses and the community, as operating a business brings them more authority. Trying to change cultural norms around domestic violence can take an extended time. Maybe we need to also look at short term empowerment of women so that they can influence the longstanding cultural norms.
Our fundraising for this program in 2014 will generate 40 new loans of $200 each for women on the waiting list. More women continue to wait. Please consider Helping Haiti Work in your end of year donations