Ebola’s Avoidable Attack on African Women
In March 2014 the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa was brought to the attention of the world via the media; websites, news channels, newspapers, blogs etc, they are covering the disease as it spreads and claims more victims, with Mali today confirming its first infection case. According to the BBC News it has become the ‘deadliest occurrence of the disease since its discovery in 1976’, with nearly 5000 reported deaths throughout Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. Thankfully, in the last couple of days, the World Health Organization has declared Nigeria to be ‘Ebola-free’, demonstrating that the disease can be contained when effective procedures are put in place in a timely manner. However, the question remains as to why it has taken several months for this breakthrough to occur? As The Guardian highlighted a few weeks ago, the international community has failed miserably in its response to this crisis.
Figures accurate from 4-6 October, depending on country. Death toll in Liberia includes probable, suspect and confirmed cases, while in Sierra Leone and Guinea only confirmed cases are shown. Source: BBC News
However, one of the most shocking aspects of this outbreak is the devastating impact Ebola is having on women. Foreign Policy In Focus reported that ’75 percent of those who have died from Ebola are women.’ Why? Why has the outbreak disproportionately affected women and girls throughout West Africa? The answer is simple. Women are the caregivers, looking after relatives who have fallen ill, especially when health clinics are overwhelmed or do not exist in their rural community. Women are more likely to be uneducated in African countries, meaning they are less likely to understand any information circulated about how Ebola spreads and safety precautions to take. Women participate in burial rites, leaving them vulnerable to catching Ebola without protective masks or gloves etc. Women lack the political voice to influence strategies combating the outbreak, and are often denied the ability to decide if, when or how to seek treatment if infected. All of these factors have created a deadly situation with devastating consequences for Africa’s women.
Those factors have fuelled Ebola’s impact on women in West Africa, despite there being no biological difference that would increase the chance of women and girls catching or dying from the disease. A Vital Voices article summed the situation up perfectly; ‘Due to cultural and traditional practices combined with gender roles and norms in West Africa, women and girls have a high risk of being victims of the Ebola outbreak.’ However, add into this the fact that pregnant women continue to need access to maternal healthcare systems during the outbreak; systems that were already struggling before the Ebola crisis began. African maternal mortality rates are some of the highest in the world, and the outbreak has placed an unbearable strain on an already weak health system.
It is therefore no surprise why women account for such a large percentage of Ebola deaths. The Washington Post looked at this, stating that there were numerous signs that ‘pregnant women in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea could be dying due to Ebola without ever getting the disease.’ Being pregnant is already dangerous for many African women and the outbreak of Ebola only acts as a further obstacle in ensuring women’s lives are protected. However, what is clear is that many women who have died from catching Ebola have done so because of factors outside of their control – social norms; cultural norms; accepted behaviour; gender stereotypes etc. All of these things have the ability to be changed (unlike biological factors), meaning some of those deaths could have been avoided. Some of the women would be alive today.
Photo from Fair Observer – Copyright Shutterstock
Whilst the international response has been slow in fighting the spread of the disease, what is arguably more disappointing is that the impact on African women has been underrepresented in the media. Of course, articles and reports have been written on this issue, but these only represent a tiny proportion of all of the coverage; and the real reason behind the horrifying statistics remains under evaluated. Whilst Ebola is the medical cause of most of these women’s deaths, surely the real reasons are the gender stereotypes that result in women being put in situations that can harm them. If both men and women shared caring duties; if women had the same access to education as men do; if women could help in the process of fighting the spread of Ebola, then it is highly likely we would not be hearing reports of 75% of fatalities being women. We can only hope that before another outbreak of a disease occurs, that African countries take the time to assess what needs to change in society in order to prevent another avoidable attack on women.
By: Helen Walker