Pandemic worsens situations for vulnerable women, children
Psychologist and women’s rights
activist, Bibi Ahamad
Psychologist and women’s rights activist, Bibi Ahamad

–as persons affected by domestic violence contend with additional mental health strain

By Vishani Ragobeer

SUE, (not her real name) is a survivor of domestic violence. She has been abused by her partner in the household where she lives with the partner and their daughter. Eventually, she made the decision to leave the abusive relationship, hoping to find ways of healing the physical and emotional scars she endured 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, resulting in adverse ramifications for economies and exacerbating inequalities. It has also led to the devastation of the social services sector, and constrained the support that can be provided to vulnerable persons like Sue.

And Bibi Ahamad, a psychologist and women’s rights activist, emphasised that among such vulnerable persons, women in particular, “hopelessness” may be becoming as prevalent as the coronavirus.

“Hopelessness; full hopelessness, is a serious issue that has stepped in, and causing survivors to even become suicidal,” Ahamad told the Guyana Chronicle in a recent interview, adding, “Mental health issues like these tend to be associated with abuse.”

This sense of hopelessness, she explained, stems from a vulnerable individual feeling trapped within the household with an abusive partner, since there have been constraints to leaving the home, for work or otherwise, presented by the pandemic.

“Before, maybe some of those abusers were to come in at various times; some of them don’t come home for a few days, and so there is a ‘breathing space’ for the persons being abused, but during the lockdown, these victims don’t have any real breathing space,” Ahamad lamented.

Further, the psychologist highlighted, “Persons reported that their abusers had nothing to do, because they couldn’t work, and many of them turned to alcohol and drugs. The abuse escalated to not only physical, but the verbal and emotional escalated on, and beyond what they expected.”

Prior to the pandemic, Sue’s partner, a fisherman, would often ‘head to sea’ for a number of days at a time. While he is away, the young woman would be able to take care of herself, and find some amount of solace. In the earlier months of the pandemic, when there were more rigid restrictions in place, that sort of solace 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 that they can call me,” Ahamad said, explaining that at this time, their partners are often sound asleep. Should the partner be aware that the women are trying to seek help, ‘airing the household’s dirty laundry’, he may become irritated, and that may trigger an outburst.

Cognisant of this situation, that has only marginally improved with the limited relaxation of some restrictions, the psychologist reasoned that the sense of hopelessness is still pervasive. This is further exacerbated by the economic implications of the pandemic, which limit the employment options many women may turn to, including domestic work or provide care-giving services.

Women’s rights activist, Danuta Radzik also told this newspaper that it is more difficult for women to find some sanctuary while staying with a friend or relative. This could be because persons are wary of the spread of COVID-19, or simply because they, too, are financially constrained, and are not capable of providing any extra 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,” Radzik said.

Radzik lamented that domestic violence is not a peculiar issue birthed in the pandemic, however. She contended that it has been its own “pandemic” for too long, owing to the root issues of gender inequality, and gender discrimination. And, perhaps, it has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Since March to the present day, Ahamad has been providing support to a group of 25 women, through the Caribbean Voice, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that provides aid to vulnerable groups like women and children, and also mental health support services.
During that time, the NGO has been able to provide counselling and some supplies; food and personal items, to these women so that they could take care of themselves. Also, two of these women were provided with support to leave the abusive households.

Yet, the feeling of hopelessness lingers. Ahamad related that many of the women believe that they would not be able to take care of themselves and their children, should they leave. Some also live in fear of angering the abusive partner, who they are ‘cooped up’ with in the house.

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

As she continues to help them, by listening, counselling or providing tangible support when possible, she remains cognisant that the violence these individuals endure has an adverse effect on their mental health as well.


Battered woman by Dre Jacobus

“Whether we want to admit it or not, the prevalence of mental health issues is in 15 to 20 per cent of the population, or approximately one in five persons,” Director of the Mental Health Unit of the Ministry of Health, Dr. Util Thomas said at a recent forum.

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

While stakeholders continued to grapple with these challenges, up came the COVID-19 pandemic, which placed an even greater strain on the services that could be offered, Dr. Thomas lamented.

According to the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford and the Oxford Biomedical Research Centre, last November, one in five people who have COVID-19 are diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder such as anxiety, depression and insomnia within six months of being tested for the virus.

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

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

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

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

Ahamad, Radzik and many other stakeholders, really work day in and day out to provide support to persons like Sue. Though the pandemic presents an additional challenge, there are efforts being developed that are geared at providing novel solutions amid the pandemic and its constraints.

These include the Human Service Ministry’s 914 toll-free hotline to report domestic abuse and the Mental Health Unit’s toll-free 655-SAFE (655-7233) hotline for counselling.


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