Ebola outbreak takes its toll on women


On 8 August, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was declared an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO). Women are on the front lines of this disease, with female nurses representing the majority of the medical personnel who have died from the virus.

Authorities in Liberia estimate as many as 75 per cent of their Ebola fatalities are women, while UN sources in Sierra Leone report women represent around 59 per cent of their deceased.

Since Ebola is spread through bodily fluids, women as primary care providers in the community and as medical professionals are at an increased risk of contracting the virus. Furthermore certain traditional practices and rituals performed on the deceased that women typical perform, can also pose and increased risk.

Still, despite the growing evidence that women are particularly at risk, there have been no communication and outreach services specifically targeting women. Any Ebola response should address the needs of women and harness their leadership roles as caregivers and community leaders.

According to the spokesperson for the WHO in Liberia, Maricel Seeger, it is vital that women are equipped with knowledge to counter the spread of the virus, since they play an important role as "informants within their community."

The international community, governments and other stakeholders must focus on women as key agents of change and social mobilizers with a central role to play in sharing knowledge, raising awareness and enhancing care.

On 13 August 2014, UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri met with Dr. Hadja Saran Daraba Kabba Secretary-General Mano River Union, which comprises the countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire. Dr. Kabba, who has been on the forefront of containing the Ebola epidemic in affected countries, discussed with UN Women the need to integrate a gender perspective in the international response to the crisis. She said women’s groups and associations can help influence governments to strengthen response mechanisms.

In this regard, Dr. Kabba also stressed the need to: sensitize women on nutrition, food processing, storage and planning; bring women into new areas of employment to support economic recovery post-Ebola; and strengthen communications between women during and after the crisis.

Ms. Puri agreed with Dr. Kabba and pledged the organization’s full support. “We will support the UN in every way in our work on the ground. We need to pay more attention to the needs of the women who are suffering from this outbreak. Harnessing women’s leadership and social mobilization is critical for containing this epidemic.”

In Ebola-affected countries UN Women is working closely with the UN Country Team and other agencies. As part of the UN’s overall response, under the coordination of the Secretary-General, UN Women is one of several UN organizations that will begin working more intensively on the ground to confront the human impact of the crisis.

UN Women will specifically mobilize and educate women to help curb the spread of Ebola in the region and in particular rural areas. In Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, it will support sensitization and advocacy response efforts on Ebola and its gender dimensions, making relevant materials available in local languages. UN Women will continue to support community radio dialogues for women, men and youth focused on facts, societal norms and addressing incorrect beliefs on Ebola.

Across the region, initial efforts are already underway. In Liberia, UN Women is working within the UN Country Team, supporting social safety nets that respond to the needs of women and girls. This includes, initiatives to strengthen the capacities of women and communities to create rural networks for Ebola-affected families, to offer psycho-social support and to facilitate dialogue and re-integration of families.

In Sierra Leone, UN Women will be targeting women in their key role as care-providers and as traditional healers. It has also advocated for household food needs-assessments to help prevent mother-to-child transmission through breastfeeding.

With the closure of many borders and stalled economic activity, Ebola is hampering development in many already economically disadvantaged post-conflict countries. To address this challenge, UN Women will also focus on increasing economic stability and resilience for women-headed households through business coping strategies, by linking women-headed households to UN and NGOs to access food rations, and by facilitating women traders’ access to secure, health-certified markets and trading areas.