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Pandemic divorces: How the MCO caused families to crumble

The stress of financial concerns and enforced distance between couples has taken its toll on many households.

Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli
3 minute read

When Munirah Faizal began planning her wedding, she imagined settling down with her husband and starting what would be a stable and happy family.

But neither she nor her husband anticipated the stress that the movement control order (MCO) would have on their marriage when restrictions were introduced in March last year.

Time apart was nothing new for either of them as they had been in a long-distance relationship since 2019. He worked in Kedah while she worked in Kuala Lumpur.

Before the pandemic, though, her husband would make weekly trips to the capital city to see her and the children.

“After the MCO, he couldn’t come at all,” Munirah said to MalaysiaNow.

With each passing day, she felt the strain growing on their marriage.

One day at the end of 2020, he came home to discuss a divorce.

“I was already expecting it,” Munirah said. “I had asked him to think carefully about it but seeing that he was determined to get a divorce, what could I do about it?”

Their divorce was finalised in March this year.

Now, Munirah who works in the customer service line is raising her two children alone.

Her older child is four, and the younger is just six months old.

“My older child keeps asking for his father,” she said. “My father says there is no need to explain the divorce for now as he is too young to understand.”

Munirah’s marriage was one of thousands that did not survive the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sociologist Syarifah Fatimah Al Attas from the International Islamic University of Malaysia said divorce has a greater impact on families in the B40 category which depend largely on the income earned by the head of the household.

They also have less access to counselling sessions than those in more affordable income brackets.

“We see dropouts among B40 children who are unable to follow their classes online,” Syarifah said.

“They don’t realise that the younger children need support,” she added. “If their parents can’t give them this support, they will face difficulties adjusting.”

She urged parents who divorce to do so amicably in a way that allows for co-parenting.

In a good divorce, she said, couples could learn how to continue managing their children well and without speaking badly of the other in front of them.

“Although they are divorced, they need to ensure that their children are stable and help them through the period of adjustment,” she said.

She said in Malaysia, there is not enough data about couples who continue to co-parent after their divorce.

“In most cases that we find in research papers and reports from the grassroots, it is a single-headed household, and most of the time these are led by single mothers.”

On the impacts of divorce on society, she spoke of economic implications such as alimony and the division of property.

“We also have to look at the outcome of a divorce, whether it is positive or not. What is going on with the couple and the impact of their performance as members of society,” she said.

For children, she added, divorce would have negative implications in terms of education, well-being, behaviour and access to future life opportunities.

Sharifah said members of society also have a role to play in balancing out the impact of divorce.

She urged all parties to consider how they can support families going through such situations.

“The children become the collateral damage,” she said. “Their lives are altered, although we hope it is not in a negative way.

“How well we have built societal structures and how much support we give to children or single mothers will determine the outcome. The more we stigmatise, the less support we will give and the outcome will be much worse.”

According to the National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN), 10,346 divorces were recorded among non-Muslim couples across the country from March 2020 to August 2021.

Meanwhile, 66,440 cases involving Muslim couples were filed at shariah courts during the same period.

LPPKN chairman Mohd Nizar Zakaria said cheating, loss of income and difficulty finding solutions to their problems were among the causes of trouble in households.

“Domestic violence also occurs when individuals are unable to control their emotions because they are cooped up at home for too long,” he said.

“Divorce happens because of unreasonable things, and it has an effect on the psychological and emotional development of their children.”

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, he said divorces which took place during the MCO period had a double effect in terms of emotions and finances.

For him, the long-term solution is a growth in knowledge about families by both husband and wife.

“Such knowledge can determine the success of a person in any undertaking, especially in achieving the goals of marriage,” he said.

He added that the reopening of the economic and social sectors would help ease the concerns of parents, which in turn would reduce the rate of domestic conflict and divorce.

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