A pandemic exacerbates situations for vulnerable women, children

– individuals affected by domestic violence compete with additional mental health stress

By Vishani Ragobeer

SUE, (not her real name) has survived domestic violence. She has been abused by her partner in the household where she lives with the partner and their daughter. Eventually, he decided to leave the abusive relationship, hoping to find ways to heal the physical and emotional scars he suffered over the years.

Since March last year, Guyana has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is well-ventilated that this pandemic has disrupted ‘normal’ life, leading to damaging implications for economies and exacerbating inequalities. It has also led to the destruction of the social services sector, and limited the support that can be provided to vulnerable people such as Sue.

And Bibi Ahamad, a psychologist and women’s rights activist, stressed that women in particular, “desperate” could be becoming as common as the coronavirus in such vulnerable people.

“Despair; full of desperation, a serious issue that has stepped in, and even caused survivors to become suicidal, ”Ahamad told the Guyana Chronicle in a recent interview, adding,“ Mental health issues like these tend to be involved in abuse. ”

He explained, this sense of despair stems from a vulnerable individual feeling trapped in the household with an abusive partner, as there had been restrictions on leaving the home, for work or otherwise, presented by the pandemic.

“Before, maybe some of those abusers were coming in at different times; some do not return home for a few days, so there is a ‘breathing space’ for the abused individuals, but during the lock-up period, these victims have no real breathing space, ”Lamented Ahamad.

The psychologist further highlighted, “People reported that their abusers had nothing to do, because they could not work, and many turned to alcohol and drugs. The abuse not only physically, but the verbal and emotional, and beyond what they expected. “

Before the pandemic, Sue’s partner, a fisherman, would often ‘go to sea’ for several days at a time. While he was away, the young woman would be able to take care of herself, and find some comfort. In the earlier months of the pandemic, when more rigid restrictions were in place, that kind of comfort disappeared.


Mental Health Unit
Director, Dr. Util Thomas

“Women would call me at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, because that’s the only time they can call me,” said Ahamad, explaining that their partners at this time often sound asleep. If the partner was aware that the women were trying to seek help, ventilating the dirty laundry of the household, it could become inflamed, which could trigger an explosion.

Aware of this situation, which has only slightly improved with the limited relaxation of some contractions, the psychologist reasoned that the sense of despair was still pervasive. This is further exacerbated by the economic implications of the pandemic, which limits the employment options that many women have access to, including domestic work or providing caregiving services.

Women’s rights activist Danuta Radzik also told this newspaper that it is more difficult for women to find some sanctuary when staying with a friend or relative. This may be because people are wary of the spread of COVID-19, or simply because they too are financially constrained, and unable to provide any additional support.

“Where would you go? You can’t go back to the abuser’s place, and you can’t necessarily go to a friend or even family, ”said Radzik.

Radzik lamented that domestic violence is not a bizarre issue birthed in the pandemic, however. She argued that she had been “pandemic” herself for too long, because of the fundamental issues of gender inequality, and sex discrimination. And, perhaps, it has been made worse by the pandemic.

From March to the present, Ahamad has been providing support to a group of 25 women, through Caribbean Voice, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that provides support to vulnerable groups such as women and children, and also mental health support services.
During that time, the NGO has been able to provide counseling and some supplies; food and personal items, for these women so they could take care of themselves. In addition, two of these women were supported to leave the abusive households.

And yet, the feeling of despair diminishes. Ahamad contacted that many of the women believed that they would not be able to look after themselves and their children, should they leave. Some also live in fear of angling the abusive partner, with whom they have ‘co-operated’ in the house.

“They know for themselves that it’s not a healthy relationship, but when despair sets in, suicidal thoughts tend to follow, and many of the people I dealt with; victims of abuse, had suicidal thoughts, or attempted during this time, ”revealed Ahamad.

As she continues to help them, through listening, counseling or providing assertive support whenever possible, she remains aware that the violence these individuals suffer is having a detrimental effect on their health think too.


Woman beaten by Dre Jacobus

“Whether we admit it or not, the prevalence of mental health issues is 15 to 20 percent of the population, or about one in five people,” Director of the Ministry of Health’s Mental Health Unit, Dr. Util Thomas said in a recent forum.

In Guyana, providing support to individuals and their mental health has been fraught with challenges, stigma among them, which has been a major obstacle for vulnerable people seeking appropriate help. The local capacity to deal with these issues is still developing.

While stakeholders continue to address these challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic came up, which put even more strain on the services that could be offered, Dr. Thomas.

According to the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford and the Oxford Biomedical Research Center, last November, one in five people with COVID-19 is diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder such as anxiety, depression and insomnia within six months of receiving it test for the virus.

“The pandemic is one example where physical illness is stressful and can lead to mental illness. However, there are also social and cultural factors that interfere with health, and ultimately mental health, ”said the director.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), violence against women is a major public health problem and a violation of human rights. Violence, says WHO, is a major cause of injury and disability, and is a risk factor for other physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health problems.

As of November 2020, a total of 17 women have been killed by their spouses, leaving 43 children motherless, according to the Minister of Human Services and Social Security, Dr. Vindhya Persaud. Many other women have been, and continue to be, physically, sexually, verbally and emotionally abused.

In 2019, the first comprehensive national survey on gender-based violence in Guyana revealed that 55 percent of all women had experienced at least one form of violence at the hands of their partner.

Ahamad, Radzik and many other stakeholders, work day in and day out to provide support to people like Sue. Although the pandemic presents an additional challenge, efforts are being developed that aim to provide new solutions in the midst of the pandemic and its limitations.

These include the Ministry of Human Services toll-free 914 helpline for reporting domestic abuse and the Mental Health Unit’s toll-free 655-SAFE (655-7233) helpline for counseling.