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A gender sensitive Ebola response and recovery

Posted by Tess Dico Young Global Humanitarian Gender Adviser, Samuel Quermorllue Programme Quality and Learning Coordinator

4th Mar 2015

Elisabeth Worjloh, 52 year old, Community Leader of New Kru Town, Liberia. Credit: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam
Women, girls, boys and men have differing needs, roles and vulnerabilities. The Ebola response and recovery needs to take this into account. In the second of our series of blogs for International Women's Day Tess Dico-Young and Samuel Quermorllue share the stories of Ebola survivors in Liberia and begin to explore how Ebola has affected women in particular.

We joined with our public health promotion team in Liberia in their community mobilisation work for a day. We went to New Kru Town, about 7 km North West of Monrovia. Two members of the Ebola Task Force organised the focus group discussion with the survivors. The survivors know Oxfam and so they were willing to speak to us openly. 

Julia survived Ebola, but is now a widow responsible for caring for her three daughters (ages eight, five, and two). Before the Ebola outbreak Julia's partner was the main breadwinner whilst she looked after her family and household work. At the same time, she engaged in selling sweets to augment their income. When her partner was ill, she looked after him full time: "He knew it was Ebola so, he stopped us from getting around him and touching him. I felt bad and asked God to protect him and us". 

After the burial, Julia took her daughters to visit an aunt but they were asked to leave as the aunt was scared of being infected with Ebola. Since her partner's death, Julia has been struggling to support her children on her own. She explained: "Many nights my children go to bed with not enough to eat." 

Julia has mixed feelings of concern and hope for the future:
"My greatest worry now is where my three little children and I will live in the next few months because this family land is owned by my partner's father who died a few years ago. My partner's siblings may decide to put me and my children out one day. I pray for long life, for God to support me to send my children to school and for us to have our own house."

One of the effects of Ebola is the number of children who are now orphans or have lost one of their parents.One of the effects of Ebola is the number of children who are now orphans or have lost one of their parents. Patrick is 12 years old and lives with his family. His father, a carpenter, is alive but his mother died of Ebola. Patrick contracted the virus from his mother. He recalled: "My mother used to buy me food, cleaned my clothes, my uniforms, taught me and sent me to school. When my mother died, I cried and still am crying but my Auntie is taking care of me. I still want my mother back. My younger sister and I are always in a state of fear." 

As a survivor Paul, a 24 year old university student, felt stigmatised and discriminated especially outside of his community and this is affecting him psychologically. In spite of the trials he had encountered he still sees a positive future for himself, his family and community. It is his hope to get support to enable him to continue his education and become a doctor one day. 

"I am looking for a secure job to support myself... I don't know when they will say get out of here."Martha is 25 years old. She lived with her late partner and two daughters (one and four years old). Her late partner was a fisherman and Martha was engaged in petty trading selling slippers as well as managing all the household work and looking after her small daughters. Her partner reacted to Ebola with disbelief and denial even when he was very ill. During his illness, Martha cared for him and used all her money to buy his medicines. She noted in tears: "He knew he was taking care of his friends who died of Ebola, came home, hid himself and told me not to disclose his location should anybody come looking for him until he later died in our hands at home. Because of his wicked actions, 17 people were affected, nine survived and eight died, including our two little daughters." 

Martha and her two daughters became ill after her partner passed away and the three of them went to the emergency treatment unit. Martha survived but her little girls did not. Now Martha is mourning and in a very difficult situation. Without formal education she has very limited options for employment. Martha explained: "I am looking for a secure job to support myself, this place is from his family and I don't know when they will say get out of here."

Acknowledging women's marginalisation 

Women at a water pump in New Kru Town. Credit: Pablo Tosco/OxfamPowerful women like Nobel prize winners President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and peace activist Leymah Gbowee have played a historical role in securing peace and in contributing to the national economy of Liberia. Despite these achievements, women remain marginalised and inequality prevails across the institutional, political, economic and social spheres. Women comprise 54% of the labour force in both the formal and informal sectors. Women farmers produce approximately 60% of agricultural products and women engage in more than 80% of trading activities in rural areas, all in addition to taking chief responsibility for household chores. Despite the large amounts of work carried out by women they remain disadvantaged. Their predominance in the informal economy translates into meagre earnings and exposure to exploitation.

Illiteracy rates among women aged 15-49 are particularly high; 60% compared to 30% for men. Maternal mortality is one of the highest in the world, and in a population which is highly vulnerable to food insecurity women suffer from higher rates of malnutrition. Women are also most exposed to gender based violence, sexual exploitation and HIV/AIDS.

How has Ebola affected women in particular? 

As women are the main care givers within their households and community they are more exposed to Ebola transmission from bodily fluids.This role gets much more complicated when death occurs, as if traditional burial practices are performed women are responsible for washing the body, placing them in a particularly high risk position.

Women engaged in-cross border trading have suffered during the crisis as the borders have been closed.Some women who have lost family members now have the daunting task of assuming the bread winning role for the first time with limited qualifications and a lack of education to compete in the job market. Women engaged in-cross border trading have suffered during the crisis as the borders have been closed. 

At the community level women have limited influence in community crisis management committees or awareness committees due to men's leadership dominance. However, building on their experience as survivors and, realising their power to change, they have formed women's awareness groups and have been active as community mobilisers to raise awareness about prevention of Ebola in their neighbourhoods.

Moving on from the immediate response to recovery, aid agencies together with the country governments are looking into the wider, socio-economic impact of the crisis. Women's voices need to be heard and their participation is vital in the response and recovery. This will help narrow the gap in existing power relations and promote equality.  

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Header image - Elisabeth Worjloh, 52 year old, Community Leader of New Kru Town, Liberia. Credit: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam
Body image - Women at a water pump in New Kru Town. Credit: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Blog post written by Tess Dico Young

Global Humanitarian Gender Adviser

More by Tess Dico Young

Tess Dico-Young

Blog post written by Samuel Quermorllue

Programme Quality and Learning Coordinator

More by Samuel Quermorllue

Samuel Quermorllue