[intro]Ghanaian writer Amba Mpoke-Bigg reflects on the devastation of Ebola in West Africa and the post-Ebola processes that have unfolded.[/intro]
MONROVIA, Liberia – I was woken from deep sleep by my middle child one night a few months ago. She was burning hot to the touch, whispered that she wasn’t well, then she threw up – as did her younger sister who developed identical symptoms the next day. For the next 48 hours as the viral flu ran its course, I nursed them and held them close. That’s normal, I’m their mother.
But for millions of mothers in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the three countries worst affected by last year’s outbreak of Ebola disease, it was different. Children with Ebola can’t be touched or nursed at home and as the virus raged, so did superstition, fear and a sense of helplessness, in the wake of limited healthcare infrastructure and poor understanding of the disease’s action.
Women suffered disproportionately in combating Ebola, mainly because of their traditional roles as nurses and healthcare workers, yet the part they played as agents of change and frontline partners in curbing the epidemic has been largely overlooked by international media.
In each of the three countries, women were among the first responders, leading the vital on-the-ground education campaigns which led to changes in harmful burial practices, traditions of touching the dead and to better hygiene and sanitation. Women were there as counselors educators, distributing food and sanitation products, or contact tracers who monitored Ebola cases in the communities.
As governments of the three nations begin the first cautious steps to recovery, for thousands of women survivors of Ebola this means taking on new roles as primary breadwinners and family heads after losing husbands, fathers and their livelihoods.
Some women’s organisations have started micro-credit loans to help survivors. Others have initiated seed capital schemes to enable women farmers to purchase seeds and tools to pick up their farming activities once more. Many survivors will also need long term pyscho-social support as well as immediate help with children’s school, feeding and tuition needs.
It is imperative that women’s organisations be supported with funds and other forms of aid to enable women survivors and their families, make the transition, says Theo Sowa of the African Women’s Development Fund, which mobilised over half a million dollars to women’s organisations in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to help the countries combat the disease.
Returning from a week-long visit to Liberia and Sierra Leone last month, I find myself immensely grateful for the fact that I live in Ghana, a country only a few hundred miles away, but which more by luck than its state of readiness, was spared the epidemic which has led to the loss of over 12,000 lives.
The survivor accounts I have listened to from Paynesville, Monrovia, Freetown or Port Loko, have left an indelible imprint. I salute the fortitude of women whose vivid stories paint the real picture of what it was like to live in quarantine, see loved ones ill and suffering and their own rejection when they returned from stays in Ebola Treatment Units.
“Women died because you can’t see your baby dying (of Ebola) and not pick him up,” said Miata Sirleaf who heads the New Liberian Women Skills Training Programme, an NGO which provided crucial support and training to marginalised and low-income women in Liberia’s Montserrado County during and after the epidemic.
And even as Liberia was declared Ebola free and Sierra Leone hit 25 days without a case, two new cases in Guinea just after it had begun its own countdown underscores the fragility of the efforts required to end this current outbreak.
The readmission of Scottish nurse Pauline Cafferkey to hospital due to complications from Ebola has only deepened the sense of unknowns around the disease and its long term impact on survivors.
For now, women’s civil society organizations like Sirleaf’s whose presence in rural communities helped to save countless lives are the best positioned to drive the post-Ebola recovery effort.
Let’s make sure to support them.
Photos in story by Francis Kokoroko