The Black Widow

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

I heard a fascinating tale the other day. A woman of my acquaintance, happily married with children, had apparently been married twice already. Each time, the husband had become abusive and, each time, had died suddenly, without explanation. Word was that she was adept at ‘posen’ – subtle potions that kill suddenly, hours or even days after their ingestion.

Whatever his motivation, her current husband was the model of good behaviour; he never ‘passed behind’ (the Bislama term for adultery) and looked after the children as if they were his own.

Doubtless polished and embellished in the telling, the story remains, at its core, perfectly credible. Spousal abuse is rampant in Vanuatu society, and the police, courts and kastom do almost nothing to protect women. It’s not at all beyond imagining that a woman might take matters into her own hands and act to stop her own suffering using whatever means necessary.

Now, this might be nothing more than folk tale. I am constantly regaled with stories of people collapsing and dieing under mysterious circumstances. On one memorable occasion, I was informed that when the family of one deceased man went to collect his body from the morgue, ‘his guts were gone! They’d simply vanished.’ Another case told of someone’s liver turning completely white. (How this was ascertained was never clear.)

The problem with this particular story is that every part of it is perfectly plausible. Indeed, in a society that views justice quite differently from mainstream European-derived notions of it, it’s not at all inconceivable that a woman would use subtle murder as a way out of an otherwise intolerable situation.

Despite the recent passage of the Family Protection Act, most women face physical abuse at some point in their adult life. Most often, their spouse is the aggressor. For a significant minority of women, beatings are brutal, frequent and delivered for no reason than to utterly break them.

In one particular case, a young woman was beaten daily into her 6th month of pregnancy, and began to be beaten again within days of delivering her child. Three weeks later, she returned to hospital with swelling in her abdomen. A week or so after that, she ran away, unable to take another day of this sickening abuse.

Object as we might against the injustice – and we do – the problem with domestic abuse is that it’s easy to get away with. The young runaway would have left months before, but her husband had already paid her bride price, which he claimed entitled him to do as he saw fit. Although kastom clearly states that the woman’s family could have taken her back, they were intimidated by the mere notion of a long, drawn-out dispute.

Furthermore, the threat of violence was always there. I asked her sister why they didn’t send the woman back to the island, where the husband would be unlikely to follow. She shot me a patient look and said, ‘Because he would just come and burn down our house instead.

But surely the men in her family would protect them? Well, she answered, yes and no. It’s clear that men rank the safety of their women far lower than their own. Some I spoke to rolled their eyes in exasperation. They recognised that the husband was doing wrong. They swore when they spoke his name. But when it came down to actually taking action, things became suddenly more complex.

Bride price came up again, and complaints about the ineffectiveness of the police. But ultimately, it came down to this: Conflict between families is a difficult thing to control, and nobody wanted to be the one to start something. Especially over something as ‘unimportant’ as a woman. Besides, they argued, everyone gets jealous, and sometimes a quick clip upside the earhole is just what’s needed to keep her in line.

That was all I needed to know. If someone’s going to plead for understanding for a man who engages in daily brutality against their own family member, there’s little point in arguing for trust and respect between the sexes.

The man gets off scot free in virtually every domestic crisis. If he runs off on his wife and kids, people will ask, ‘What did she do to drive him away?’ If he fools around with someone else, it’s usually the wife who’s forced to find the other woman and beat her into submission. It’s the only way she can publicly demonstrate that she’s not at fault. If a man beats his wife inside his own home, nobody will do anything. Ever. Here in Vanuatu, a man’s home really is his castle. Even if it’s his wife’s money that pays for it, her labour that maintains it, and her life that suffers just so that he can feel in control.

Why should we be surprised then, if one or two desperate women feel driven to poison hubby’s evening meal? When he pauses for grace before supper, more than one husband in Vanuatu would do well to pray he doesn’t create the next Black Widow.