International Women's Day: women as agents of change against Ebola

Deddeh is an Ebola survivor. Out of solidarity she has decided to stay in the treatment area to take care of baby Elijah who lost his mother because of Ebola and is now infected himself. Photo credit: MSF/Martin Zinggl
Humanitarian crises have a different impact on women and men because of the different gender roles they play in their societies. To mark International Women’s Day, we want to highlight the enormous strength that women have shown in one of the most severe recent crises: Ebola.
Women are often the most vulnerable in both man-made and natural disasters. Yet they can play a crucial role both during disasters and in the recovery phase.
The World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa an international public health emergency on 8 August 2014. According to a recent report by IASC (Inter-Agency Standing Committee), there are several reasons why gender roles can exacerbate the likelihood for women to be infected by Ebola: women are more likely to be front-line health workers or health service staff; norms and customs dictate that women and girls play the role of caretakers for ill family members; women are often traditionally tasked with preparing dead bodies for burial. All these roles bring women into direct contact with the disease.
Despite this, women have been in the frontline to fight Ebola and many of them have been extraordinary examples of strength.
Paciencia Melga is an Ebola hero. She was among the health workers dealing with the first cases of Ebola in Liberia. And this is how she got infected. When sick, she never lost hope and tried to motivate the patients sharing her room in the treatement centre. Paciencia was lucky and survived to Ebola. She now focuses her energy on raising awareness about the epidemic in schools, hospitals and at international gatherings.
Another great example is PowerWomen 232. In August 2014, PowerWomen 232 – a network of Sierra Leone women professionals aiming to promote career advancement for women through networking, social events and community service – launched a citizen response initiative. “All Hands on Deck” is a platform asking ordinary citizens to contribute to the Ebola fight by donating items for care packages. In January this year, the organization offered assorted food items to the men and women at one of the Ebola treatment centres.
Women are not the only agents of change. Men play a pivotal role in changing the social norms that affect women. On the occasion of this year’s Women’s Day, EU Commissioner Christos Stylianides, together with all male members of the European Commission, gave his support to the UN campaign #HeforShe. The campaign aims at making gender equality an issue for both men and women, and it calls for a more active engagement of men in the fight against discrimination.