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Ebola response cannot be gender blind

by and

woman selling meat at a market in LiberiaWith borders closed and travel restricted, small holder farmers, mostly women, are hard put to get to community markets to sell their produce. © 2014 Morgana Wingard

Years of combatting HIV, malaria and tuberculosis - all of which have taken a harsh toll on women in sub-Saharan Africa - reveal lessons that, if heeded, could help stem the tide of the Ebola epidemic.

There is little doubt that women are at the frontline of the Ebola crisis, as they are most often responsible for caring for sick relatives at home, or likely to be working as nurses, traditional healers and health facility cleaners.

There is scant reliable data disaggregated by gender on the current outbreak, but reports suggest it has a particularly destructive impact on women. With medical facilities overwhelmed, expectant mothers are often left without pre-natal care, obstetric services and newborn care.  With borders closed and travel restricted, small holder farmers, mostly women, are hard put to get to community markets to sell their produce.  Isolated by quarantines or orphaned by Ebola, girls and young women are at increased risk of gender-based violence and exploitation.

Acknowledging the disproportionate impact of Ebola on women is a first step, but it’s not enough. To succeed, responses must put gender-specific realities and needs front and center.

It is critical to recognize and involve women as leaders in their communities. Women may have increased exposure to the disease, but they are also the best resources for containing it. They must be meaningfully engaged in raising awareness and planning responses in their communities and countries.

In addition, the Ebola response must recognize and compensate women for the unpaid care work they do. As women are pulled out of their daily work to care for sick family members or children orphaned by the disease, they have less time to earn money and grow and sell food, which can lead to increased food insecurity and poverty. Any cash transfers to help victims and affected communities recover must value and compensate women for this lost revenue.

Responses must also consider women’s legal and economic rights, particularly with regard to land, property and inheritance.

For all of these reasons, the UN Ebola Emergency Response has integrated a gender-sensitive approach into its health and essential services work. Supporting this effort, we ensured that women were represented in our training and deployment of 500 police officers in Guinea. The newly trained police personnel aim to help build trust, secure poor areas, report suspected cases and reach out to communities on how to avoid contracting Ebola. 

Looking ahead, failure to account for gender-specific issues will have a negative impact on prospects for long-term recovery. Assessing and responding to the Ebola outbreak through a gender lens is imperative.

Africa Crisis response partnerships Crisis prevention and recovery Gender equality Health