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Ebola: The need for a gendered approach

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By Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi , Special Envoy on Gender, AfDB

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. On Aug. 14, the Washington Post reported that across Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, collectively 55 to 60 % of those dead were women. That a communicable disease has gendered effects should come to no surprise – we have seen the same with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis, though the reasons for contamination may differ. So why is it that we cannot move beyond the ‘interesting observation’ stage, and how can we target that segment of the population most at risk to ensure prevention, treatment and recovery post recovery?

For the same reasons that women have been most affected by the disease–because they are often caregivers to their families and, professionally, nurses are predominantly female–they also play this role in the economic and social development of these countries. So much development attention is focused on empowering women socially and economically because in doing so, women also make the right investments for their children, families, and communities that lead to social and economic development. By losing so many women in this crisis, the countries are also losing a natural shock absorber that will help the countries recover. It is therefore critical to move beyond rhetoric to stop the crisis, and protect and empower the women that these countries need to rebuild.

With just hours prior to boarding the WHO plane, the AfDB’s President Donald Kaberuka had asked for volunteers of senior management to join him on a visit to Liberia and Sierra Leone. With my doctor in South Africa and the Bank’s Medical Team’s blessing, I joined the convoy to the airport. In a delegation led by the President Donald Kaberuka, Mme Agnes Soucat (Director for Human Development), and our Resident Representatives Yero Baldeh (Sierra Leone), and Maggie Kilo (Liberia), we arrived in Sierra Leone. I was struck by the strict health and safety protocols followed by all personnel from the moment we stepped off the plane. I met with Mme Finda Koroma, from the Office of the First Lady of Sierra Leone, who spoke to me quite candidly on the impact of Ebola on Sierra Leonean women.  Women have been disproportionately affected by EVD – a common trend in countries with sizeable gender equality gaps and low capacity in terms of public health systems. As 52% of the population of both the Republics of Guinea and Sierra Leone are made up of women, it is perhaps not surprising, that as of 8 August 2014, women account for 52% of the reported EVD deaths in Sierra Leone, and 55% in Guinea. The troubling fact is that in terms of economic potential of women and their contribution to the economy, 54% of Sierra Leone women who died as a result of Ebola in were of the reproductive age, years when they are also contributing most to the social and economic development of their families and countries.

Liberia stands out with a disproportionate share of female deaths-75%, which will truly affect women’s and the country’s economic potential. Stepping off the plane in Monrovia, immediately one can tell the overall situation is much more severe. We were joined by the Assistant Director General of WHO Kaiju Fukuda where we participated in a coordination meeting.   Meeting with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf along with the Ebola Crisis Committee - comprised of the Ministries of Finance, Foreign Affairs, Internal Affairs, and Health and Social Welfare - we listened to the economic repercussions of Ebola and discussed various ways to address it. The blockade put on Liberia is compounding the already fragile economic environment and exacerbating the capacity challenges. As President Kaberuka put it, there is a potentially more catastrophic crisis, that of a drop in GDP growth by more than 1%. This renders the spread of the disease and impact on women far more devastating.

As we speak, women are unable to trade, move or access health services. These restrictions are producing a cascading effect in several areas including the following: health, psycho-social, socio-cultural, economic, welfare and livelihood and security.  EVD has also had a devastating effect on trade, investment and agricultural sectors which are dominated by women and in the tourism sector which has a high number of females in formal employment. In Sierra Leone, for example, Kailahun and Kenema Districts have women master farmers and heads of household whose agricultural bases have been severely eroded and in some cases, completely wiped out as a result of EVD deaths. According to reports from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security, the first planting season this year has been completely lost in several parts of the country.  Financial support and seedlings will have to be provided to distressed farmers during the second planting season this year.  In Sierra Leone, the FAO has made funds available to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security for food distribution, agricultural inputs and implements to distressed farmers.

In an effort to contain the spread of EVD to other parts of the country, the government of Sierra Leone has restricted access to districts which form part of the bread baskets of Sierra Leone. Such restrictions have resulted in the loss of income of women who are traditionally the bread winners in rural homes and the rotting of much needed staple foods due to lack of transportation to their various destinations, especially Freetown, the capital city.  Access to land could also create problems for EVD widows because of the land tenure system in the rural areas. There is no guarantee that upon the deaths of the husbands who were owners of farm lands that they will inherit their land under customary laws which discriminate against females.  It is therefore important that special provisions be made in recovery and post-recovery interventions with the consent of the paramount chiefs for widows to inherit their husbands’ farm lands.

In addition, women run the majority of small businesses either as market women or as petty traders.  Women also constitute 70% of cross border traders within the Mano River Union region. The travel restrictions to neighbouring countries have resulted in severe economic loss to women in business and the resulting overcrowding of municipal and local markets all over the country poses an even greater risk of women being contaminated by the virus.  Consequently, women remain a vulnerable segment of the population as a result of EVD.

There is an urgent need to mitigate the economic losses of women 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 help them rebuild. The current nature of the on-going Ebola outbreak requires an increasingly multi-disciplinary approach to provide an integrated response. The Governments affected acknowledge the challenges and are preparing an effective response. As the Special Envoy on Gender, I am committed to tackling these challenges as well as to advocating for the nuanced approach to contain the disease while ensuring that the gains in women’s economic empowerment do not flounder.  We must look at how we can innovatively assist national gender machineries in responding to what will be one of their biggest challenges this decade.



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