Women’s Resilience: Integrating Gender in the Response to Ebola
Robtel Neajai Pailey
According to a 2007 World Health Organisation (WHO) report, infectious diseases tend to unmask already entrenched gender disaparities in societies struggling to cope with them. When the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) struck Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014, they were ill-prepared for a massive healthcare crisis. The breakdown of pre-existing weak healthcare systems and near economic collapse across the three countries further exposed women's socio-economic vulnerabilities. On August 14, the Washington Post reported that across Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, collectively 55 to 60% of those dead were women. Although there is a dearth of evidence-based reporting on multifaceted implications of EVD for women in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, there is also sufficient anecdotal evidence to indicate that they have been disproportionately impacted by the outbreak. The reduction in health services has increased maternal, infant, and child mortality rates. According to reports across the three countries, women farmers, marketers, and cross-border traders have lost their livelihoods due to declines in agricultural productivity, imposed quarantine measures, and closed borders. Women employed in the private sector across the sub-region are in hospitality/food service, insurance, air-transport, and shipping, sectors that have been severely hit by the Ebola virus. In addition to a loss of livelihoods, women have had limited access to healthcare services, and have been overburdened by their roles as caregivers in the home. While women have spent countless hours tending to the sick, they have exposed themselves to contagion and disengaged from productive work to sustain livelihoods. For the purposes of this report, particular attention is paid to women's labour force participation (or lack thereof), as well as their access to financial services, land tenure, healthcare, and decision-making in both the home and nation. This report suggests that the EVD crisis in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone has most likely impacted women in the following ways: i) increased infection rates among women because of their traditional roles as caregivers, cross-border traders, and marketers; ii) compromised the livelihoods of women marketers due to the closure of community and land markets; ii) compromised the livelihoods of women who dominate the agricultural, retail trade, hospitality and tourism sectors; iv) stigmativsed women who work in hospitals and Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs); v) barred widows from accessing their deceased husband's land because of discriminatory inheritance laws; vi) increased abuse, sexual and gender-based violence because of the pressures of EVD, as well as reduced access to justice mechanisms; and vii) reduced the number of women accessing health care, including reproductive, child, and pregnancy related health services due to the closure of facilities across the three countries. Women who fall within special categories of vulnerable groups, such as (mentally and physically) disabled or elderly women, will more than likely have been doubly or even triply impacted.