To mark International Women’s Day, we pay tribute to Liberia, which just five days ago announced itself free of all new cases of Ebola. Notwithstanding, in order for the Ebola crisis to be declared over, World Health Organization protocol requires no new Ebola cases in the country for 42 days. Despite 37 more days of waiting before Liberia can declare itself Ebola free, it’s remarkable to reflect on the impact that Ebola has had on the country, not only from a mortality perspective, but the impact the disease has had on the economy, social structures, and individual family units.
Notably, statistics illustrate the effects that the disease has had on women. Since its outbreak, the World Health Organization reports there have been a total of 2828 women with confirmed and probable cases of Ebola in Liberia. The statistic is shocking in the aggregate and even more disturbing when you look at individual cases such as the village of Joeblow, where the lives of all young mothers in the village were claimed by the disease.
Historically, humanitarian crises have had differing effects on men and women—and the Ebola crisis is no different. Generally, in Liberia and across Sub-Saharan Africa, women play the integral societal role of caretaker. Women take care of the children, prepare meals and care for the sick and elderly. These responsibilities, as evidenced by the village of Joeblow, place women at a greater risk of exposure to Ebola. Moreover, experts note that women are more likely to be “front line health workers” in charge of treating the sick, which leads to greater risks of exposure.
Aside from number of deaths, Ebola has had devastating socio-economic effects on the women of Liberia. In many small towns and villages across Liberia, women rely on informal trading for livelihood. Reduced movement between border towns and villages has prevented market women from normal streams of income. Furthermore, according to the International Rescue Committee, the consequences of Ebola have been much farther reaching. Incidents of rape and pregnancies were on the rise as a consequence of schools being closed. And, the United Nations Development Fund reported that the breakdown in health services across Ebola-inflicted countries increased the risk of infant and maternal mortality.
In a recent speech to the U.S. Congress, Liberia’s President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, expressed the need for Liberia to move from response to recovery with new investments in agriculture, greater opportunities for private sector engagement, and the transition of the health care system back to Liberians. In parallel, on Liberia’s road to recovery, it’s important that the Government—when examining necessary social reforms in the wake of Ebola—take into account the impacts that the crisis has had on women in the country.