One week ago a woman in one of our pregnancy classes said she wasn’t coming because of a headache. I told the messenger to tell her to drink plenty of water because it’s really easy to get dehydrated in hot season, even if you aren’t almost 9 months pregnant.
In the middle of class the translator told me, “She didn’t really have a headache. She was fighting her husband and he hit her, she has a bruise all over the side of her face. He told her to ‘go, go to class’, but she wanted to stay and keep fighting with him.”
Three days later I was telling one of our western team members that same story and it wasn’t until then that I realized that I had heard a story of a pregnant woman I knew being beaten by her husband and I had had no reaction at all. None. I simply nodded and moved on to the next part of the class.
I’ve been here long enough that stories like this barely register anymore. It is so disgustingly common for Burmese men to hit their wives that even the women speak of it lightly.
Today, I was pulling off the highway toward a village we’ve just recently started visiting and I saw a woman tearing toward me, her shirt half torn off of her, her face full of fear, screaming. Behind her stalked a stone faced man bent on catching her. She grabbed onto my arm and would not let go, screaming and crying.
I opened the door to my car and let her in beside my 1 year old son. Then we two women, TinTin and I, stood between her and the man approaching.
Of course he was her husband, and he was drunk, and he was angry at her for not going to borrow 10 baht so he could buy more alcohol, I mean, food, he said food. Maybe he was telling the truth. He hadn’t hit her, yet. Just grabbed her so violently to prevent her from leaving,to try another way to get money to avoid his wrath, that she had to hold her shirt together in the front, and was tying it together with a knot to keep from being exposed while barely a thread kept it together on her shoulder. (She showed me the barely healing bruises from the last time he had attacked her.)
It’s what happened next though that may shock and sicken you.
Within a few minutes another man came by and said something taunting to the woman weeping hysterically in the back of my car. Then her mother in law came to explain about her son. “He wouldn’t have done it if he wasn’t drunk. He didn’t hit her. She shouldn’t have run away. He’s just so afraid to lose her.”
I responded that I would not leave her here and would take her over to the next village where she has some relatives and there are leaders who have some influence over this family.
We asked if she had a baby, she did. We decided that I would stay at the car with her while TinTin dropped off the nutrition packages and brought a big fat baby back from the house, sucking on a bottle filled with sweetened soy milk. (She stopped breastfeeding at 7 months so she could go back to work and feed her 4 sons.) In the end the husband would not let the baby go with her without the mother in law coming as well because he was afraid that she would leave him for good with the baby. So the MIL got into my car also and we drove to the nearby village.
She told her story again, and again. He has always been like this. Even back in Burma. Many women commiserated. Her husband’s cousin, a lovely woman, said, “I understand it is hard to borrow money, people think it’s for him to get drunk. If you need food come to me and if I have 2 rice I will give you 1.”
She wanted to go away with me. They all said that it would make things worse, he would be more angry. Now, he’s sorry, she should go home. They all honestly believed that, even though “This always happens with this family.”
Her three older boys walked over from the other village to beg mommy to come home.
“I don’t want to go back,” she said, “But what other choice do I have? I have 4 children, they need me to take care of them.”
We gave her an extra bag of food, eggs and vegetables, so the family could eat that night and there would be less cause for friction.
It made me sick to my stomach to watch her walk down that road with her boys around her and her mother in law trailing behind. Back to the man she had run screaming from just hours earlier. My heart broke for those boys, growing up in the trauma of such a family, and that we aren’t yet ready to truly help this family find a different way. YET.
Next time, it will be different. Next time we’ll be ready. For her, and anyone else. We’ve already been working on a solution for months. Today all I could do was wish that we had already finished setting it up.
This is part one. For part two, on the women’s shelter and learning center that we are in the process of building, stay tuned.