Women mobilize to halt the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone

Door-to-door volunteers and traditional chiefs are educating and gathering information in their communities on prevention and the impact of the Ebola virus on women.

Date: 13 October 2014

“Don’t touch!” warns feisty 3-year-old M’ballu Jalloh when her friend tries to draw her into a childhood game. Her apprehension reveals the level of awareness that even children now have about the Ebola Virus Disease in the town of Kailahun, in eastern Sierra Leone near the borders of Guinea and Liberia.

woman gives hand-washing demonstration
A campaign volunteer gives a demonstration on proper hand washing. Photo: UN Women/Emma Vincent

At least 2,455 cases of the disease have been reported across Sierra Leone as of 5 October, resulting in over 700 deaths.

M’ballu is among the 1.5 million people who have been reached by the Ose-to-Ose Ebola Tok (Door-to-Door Campaign) in September, which UN Women supported in Kailahun. Nearly 29,000 young women and men volunteers — cutting across all sectors, regions, religions, tribes and political lines — worked together over three days, leaving their comfort zones to reach remote villages.

“I am doing this for the love of my country, because no amount of money can be compared to the risk involved,” said female volunteer Jatu Kaneh.

Volunteers started their day as early as 5.30 a.m., trekking treacherous roads, sometimes under heavy rains. Some even had to carry their motorbikes, along with heavy cartons of soap on their heads.

One of the roads trekked by campaign volunteers. Photo: UN Women/Emma Vincent

Volunteers underwent intensive training to learn about the disease and their roles during the campaign. UN Women helped design the trainings, along with UNICEF, UNFPA and WHO.

Government reports indicate that the door-to-door campaign was successful, reaching over 80 per cent of households — 1.5 million people across Sierra Leone— with 92 dead bodies discovered and 130 more Ebola cases confirmed.  

Orphans and stigmatized nurses

One of the youngest orphaned Ebola survivors in Sierra Leone is 21-month-old baby girl Neima Kanu (alias). Her entire family passed away at the Médecins Sans Frontières-run Kailahun Ebola Management Centre in Kailahun, the area first and most-badly hit by the disease in Sierra Leone.

Man wears shirt displaying info about Ebola
A man wears a t-shirt displaying information about the Ebola response. Photo: UN Women/Emma Vincent

Medical nurses are often their only hope. Nursing assistant Jamie (who preferred not to give her real name), says she discovered Neima on one of her daily rounds, provided her immediate treatment, and a bond flourished. When Neima was discharged from the hospital, there was no family to collect her so Jamie took her home to join her own two children.

Of the 1,423 Sierra Leonean children who have been affected by the virus as of 30 September 2014, 367 have been left orphaned. They are often rejected by surviving community and family members.

In response, UN Women, in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, is refurbishing former rehabilitation centres used during the country’s civil war to accommodate orphaned and abandoned children, as well as nurses who are now stigmatized because of their contact with patients.

Prevention: Social mobilization and data 

In ongoing efforts, UN Women is working with the Association of Traditional Women Leaders, Council of Paramount Chiefs, Inter-Religious Council, civil society organizations, women and youth clubs, and government agencies to gather information and enable better-targeted public health messages. Through the Office of the First Lady of Sierra Leone, UN Women has supported the sensitization of over 530 traditional leaders to seek information on the social and gender impacts of Ebola at the household level. 

A woman displays an Ebola info card in Dodo Kortema Village, Kailahun District in Sierra Leone. Photo: UN Women/Emma Vincent

“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,” explains UN Women Representative for Sierra Leone, Mary Okumu.

UN Women is also developing a manual on infection prevention and control that will be used to train health workers across the country. It will complement an existing campaign encouraging pregnant women and lactating mothers to access healthcare in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

To strengthen cultural and gender-sensitive outreach, UN Women has supported the production of a five-minute audio track about the disease and its gender dimensions in six major local languages. The song, aired on local radio stations across the country, was produced by the Deputy Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs.

Related links:

At the frontlines, Liberian women adopt new strategies in Ebola response 

Ebola outbreak takes its toll on women

As front-line caretakers in Ebola crisis, women and girls need gender-based humanitarian response, Gender Alert says