By David Lai, Ebola Crisis Policy and Information Management Coordinator
Today a major international donor conference is taking place in Brussels to plan the rebuilding of Ebola hit countries. Having just recently returned from Sierra Leone and Liberia, I would like to share my reflection on how the impact of the crisis is affecting women and girls. Quite a crucial aspect, and a gender transformative approach should inform donor commitment in Brussels this Tuesday.
Recent media attention has highlighted how Ebola has hit women the hardest and how the epidemic is threatening gains in gender equality made in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The Washington Post reported that across Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, collectively 55 to 60 percent of those dead were women. So why is it that we cannot move beyond the ‘interesting observation’ stage, and target that segment of the population most at risk to ensure prevention, treatment and recovery? Years of combating HIV, malaria and tuberculosis - all of which have taken the harshest toll on women in sub-Saharan Africa - reveal lessons that could help stem the tide of the Ebola epidemic.
75 percent of female deaths in Liberia
There is little doubt that women are at the frontline of the Ebola response as they are caring for sick relatives at home, or likely to be working as nurses, traditional healers and health facility cleaners. There is scant reliable data disaggregated by gender on the current outbreak, but reports suggest it has a particularly destructive impact on women. With medical facilities overwhelmed, expectant mothers are often left without pre-natal care, obstetric services and new-born care. With borders closed and travel restricted, small holder farmers, mostly women, are hard pushed to get to community markets to sell their produce. Isolated by quarantines or orphaned by Ebola, girls and young women are at increased risk of gender-based violence and exploitation.
Liberia stands out with a disproportionate share of female deaths – 75 percent, which will truly affect women’s and the country’s economic potential. The blockade put on Liberia is compounding the already fragile economic environment and exacerbating the capacity challenges. Yet there is a potentially more catastrophic crisis following Ebola: a drop in GDP growth by more than 1 percent. This renders the spread of the disease and impact on women far more devastating.
Why are women disproportionately affected? The evidence points to women’s expected social role as carers of the sick, an expectation intensified in contexts where formal healthcare provision is weak and inaccessible. Linked to this is the idea that women should sacrifice for their families, even to the extent of putting their own lives at risk to prioritise care for ailing family members. To some extents, this reflects the role of women in the society.
We need to recognize women as leaders
Acknowledging the disproportionate impact of Ebola on women is a first step, but it’s not enough. To succeed, responses must put gender-specific realities and needs front and centre. It is critical to recognize and involve women as leaders in their communities. Women may have increased exposure to the disease, but they are also the best resources for containing it. They must be meaningfully engaged in raising awareness and planning responses in their communities and countries. In addition, the Ebola response should recognize and compensate women for the unpaid care work they do. As women are pulled out of their daily work to care for sick family members or children orphaned by the disease, they have less time to earn money and grow and sell food, which can lead to increased food insecurity and poverty. Yet we should not forget the men, who are affected as well as they are the ones carrying the dead bodies.
For all of these reasons, CARE International in Liberia and Sierra Leone has integrated a gender-sensitive approach into its Ebola response. There is an urgent need for stakeholders to collect and use gender-disaggregated data to better target Ebola management and response at district and national levels. Generating such data is part of CARE’s Gender Mainstreaming Strategy.
Women as agents of change
It is important for the international community, governments, and relevant stakeholders to deliberately focus on women as valuable agents of change and social mobilizers with a central role to play in shaping a comprehensive and multi-faceted response system, sharing expertise and knowledge, raising awareness and enhancing care. Women must be included in strategizing when assessing the scope of the outbreak and designing responses and implementing interventions. There is an urgent need to mitigate the economic losses of households during the pandemic and to position them for economic recovery and eventually, economic empowerment in the aftermath of the pandemic. The affected economies need to ensure that women are empowered to participate in rebuilding their countries.
Many of the donors gathering in Brussels have already committed to putting gender at the heart of their emergency response funding at the global level. A year ago, donors and operational agencies convened the ‘Call to Action on Violence Against Women and Girls in Emergencies’ and outlined twelve specific ways they would seek to better prevent gender violence and empower women and girls in times of crisis. Now is the time to translate these commitments into the Ebola response.