Ebola will continue to adversely affect West African women and girls for a long time

FCA handed out hygiene supplies near Monrovia in Liberia last October. Photo: Anais Marquette

The Ebola haemorrhagic fever has compounded the discrimination of the already variously vulnerable groups in Liberia, according to a recent Study on the Gendered Impacts of Ebola in Liberia. The position of women and girls in particular is in danger of weakening further.

Saturday, 9 May, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that the spreading of the Ebola haemorrhagic fever had ended in the West African state of Liberia. According to the WHO, no new cases of Ebola infections had been recorded in Liberia for 42 days. There were still new infections in Sierra Leone and Guinea, but less than 10 per week.

Leena Kotilainen, the author of the Study on the Gendered Impacts of Ebola in Liberia points out that even though the spreading of the disease has now ended in Liberia, the epidemic itself is not yet over, not even in Liberia. Kotilainen is a researcher at the University of Turku.

“The poor have borne and will continue to bear most of the costs of the epidemic. Ebola has compounded the discrimination of the already variously vulnerable people in Liberia”, she says.

The Ebola epidemic, that has been ravaging Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, has led to over 10,000 deaths in one year. In Liberia, over 4,700 people, almost half of the ones infected, have died. More than 25,000 people in total have been infected so far.

Women widowed by Ebola have become outcasts

According to the study, commissioned by Finn Church Aid, Ebola represents a new form of discrimination to compound the already existing ones. This means, that the social inequality of people who were already in a vulnerable position has become even greater.

“In Liberia, women usually don’t have equal rights to men in matters such as the distribution of inheritance. Women widowed by Ebola have been cast out of families without any assets”, Kotilainen explains.

The gendered effects of Ebola are emphasized by the fact that men, who have recovered from infection, carry the virus in their semen for months. In Liberia, one woman might have been infected by a man as long as six months after he had been declared free of the virus. It is highly likely, then, that the stigma and discrimination associated with Ebola will touch upon men as well.

On the other hand, the fragile health care system in Liberia was not able to answer the needs of those people, who contracted other diseases during the epidemic. Many died of common diseases, such as malaria. Also, deaths during childbirth increased. The people most affected, were the ones who did not have the possibility to search for treatment in the cities let alone from abroad.

Many have used up their savings

Ebola also has other effects than ones that directly affect an individual’s health.

The Ebola epidemic, that has been ongoing for a year now, has caused the income levels of many to collapse. One of the most affected groups has been women, who traditionally have sold groceries at the markets.

“At the start of the epidemic, nobody wanted to buy anything from them, because people didn’t really know how the virus spread. Many were afraid of catching it at the market. Many people lost their business and had to dig into their little savings. Now, more and more families live completely hand to mouth”, Kotilainen describes.

Foreign Minister’s Special Representative in the work against Ebola, Counsellor of Foreign Affairs Tiina Jortikka-Laitinen reminds us that the challenge now is to maintain Ebola readiness. She estimates that the need for clinics and health care workers in Liberia will continue, maybe, until the end of the year.

According to Jortikka-Laitinen, another cause for concern is the status of those who have recovered from infection, but have not been accepted back into their community.

“The actions of the civic society and the international organisations are absolutely central under these circumstances.”

Fragile states must be supported

Jussi Ojala, Finn Church Aid Ebola Representative, voices concern over how an already fragile state can manage the long term effects of Ebola. According to him, support for the local systems and structures was largely neglected during the initial emergency aid period, even though such support should be in a key role in emergency aid.

“Now, it would be wise to choose a more thorough route and support the structures of these states and strengthen their ability to function.”

Kotilainen, Jortikka-Laitinen and Ojala spoke at an Ebola seminar organised by Finn Church Aid.

Text: Satu Helin