Every year, International Women’s Day marked on March 8, congregates individuals and organizations that advocate for women rights and gender equality across the globe.
This year is no different. In commemorating the day, the Office of the African Development Bank’s Special Envoy on Gender, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, has launched a report that gives a deeper look into the impact of Ebola on women.
Dubbed “Women’s Resilience: Integrating Gender in the Response to Ebola,” the AfDB-commissioned study brings to light a topic that has often been discussed, but never investigated concretely – did Ebola affect women and men differently? The answer is a resounding yes.
In the report, VP & Special Envoy on Gender, African Development Bank Group, Fraser-Moleketi says that Bank experts “have long suspected that infectious diseases tend to exacerbate the socio-economic vulnerabilities that are present prior to an outbreak, and that knowledge has been confirmed by the AfDB report.”
Acknowledging her visit to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Guinea-Conakry in August 2015 at the height of the epidemic, VP Fraser- Moleketi noted, “I met women and men working tirelessly to eradicate this disease. Countless lives were lost in this battle and the repercussions will be felt for years to come in terms of economic growth. For women, there was, and still is, a danger of reverting to the way things were before.”
According to the report, the gender effects of Ebola in the region are majorly influenced by the skills and strategies used prior to the outbreak, and the mechanisms individuals used to cope and adapt differ.
The report which investigates the futility to build resilience to Ebola and future infectious diseases also stresses the need to address the systematic gender inequality. “Factors that entrench vulnerability for the entire population must be addressed in the immediate response, medium-term mitigation and long-term intervention,” an excerpt reads.
Women as caregivers and how this role made them susceptible
It is common that women are majorly the caregivers, particularly in Africa. This special role that women and girls play sometimes involuntarily, can and has caused them harm especially in the wake of the Ebola virus.
The report pinpoints that a female health worker unknowingly treated two infected persons in a hospital in Foya, Lofa County, on the border of Guinea, in March 2014. The female worker was later infected and subsequently, after falling ill sought medical attention at the Firestone Hospital, Harbel in Margibi County.
“This woman became Liberia’s patient zero, the first reported Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) case in the country,” a report in the New England Journal of Medicine said.
Further, the report argues that women signify the central figures in most recent Ebola narratives.
The cultural practices in Muslim burial ceremonies across the sub-region require close family members of the deceased to prepare the corpse for burial. Although the report argues there is little to no empirical evidence proving a correlation between burial practices and increased EVD transmission rates, some reports indicate that transmission through burial rituals occurred.
The AfDB report highlights that the roles played by women like cross-border traders, small-scale farmers, marketers, nurses, midwives, nurses, traditional birth attendants among others were majorly affected. This was due to the quarantine of markets and residential areas, or restrictions of movement, as measures to stop the spread of EVD also devastated income generation—especially in the informal sector, where female household heads and other women predominate.
Illustrating the nature of women’s disease burden, Liberia’s Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection, Julia Duncan-Cassell, noted that “at the beginning of the outbreak [in Liberia], 65% of those infected were women. The Minister noted that the numbers have now reduced slightly. “Women are losing their husbands, they are losing their sons and their daughters. Women are often both caregivers and breadwinners. They go to the market, they do farming. Most nurses in Liberia are female. Directly or indirectly, they are taking the brunt of this”.
Although women are not being encouraged to abandon their roles in order to keep safe from Ebola and other infectious diseases, it is important that they do it with knowledge and caution. Building the capacity of these caregivers is thus necessary. The knowledge will help the women and other caregivers protect themselves from such infections while they continue to play their roles in the society.
Ingenuity helps a 22-year lady fight Ebola in Liberia
While it is evident women have been disproportionately impacted by EVD, they have also defied odds. In September, CNN released a story about a 22-year-old Liberian final year nursing student, Fatu Kekula, who single-handedly treated four family members at home when they fell sick with Ebola in Kakata, Margibi County.
With most hospitals closed and no access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs), Kekula relied on her wits, using trash bags, rubber gloves, boots and a face mask to shield herself from contagion. Three of her four relatives survived and Kekula never got infected. Her ‘trash bag method’ was hailed as an example of local ingenuity. Her story is a testament to the resilience of women across the sub-region who have triumphed over the disease.
Reiterating the appeal by Duncan-Cassell to not only emphasize the need for gendered analysis but also for data accuracy and reliability, the report highlights the need to collect the relevant information to combat the inequalities underscored by disease outbreaks now. It is argued that the “psycho-social trauma has been so enormous that the toll from Ebola might become heavier than the toll of armed conflict”.
With that in mind, resources should be set aside to support individuals affected by Ebola in the region as well as build capacity of people in the prone areas as a preventive measure.
One of the recommendations of the report was to establish a Social Investment Fund. The AfDB has since invested $33 million in the Post-Ebola Social Investment Fund, a project supported by the US State Department.
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