How Ebola Impedes Women's Empowerment in West Africa

It is patently clear that Ebola is injurious not just to women's physical health, but to their education, safety and economic well-being.
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On November 17, 2014, at a women's health event called "Better by Half," Barbara Bush and Melinda Gates voiced concerns about women's health in Ebola-affected countries. Arguing that "women's health is becoming a casualty of the Ebola outbreak," Bush and Gates reignited calls to take concerted action to address the Ebola crisis.

As I read Lucy Westcott's Newsweek piece "Barbara Bush on the Impact of Ebola on Women's Health," I couldn't agree more with Bush's remark on the conversation about Ebola. Speaking to Newsweek, Bush remarked: "One thing that has been missed out of the dialogue around Ebola is, we talk about it as a health issue and it is a health issue, but there's so many other repercussions from it." Hoping to learn more about the the effects of Ebola on women's and girls' empowerment in West Africa, I found out that the outbreak does indeed extend beyond the purview of women's health. Worryingly, the Ebola outbreak has directly and indirectly spilled over into other areas concerning women's empowerment; it is patently clear that Ebola is injurious not just to women's physical health, but to their education, safety and economic well-being.

Ebola's Impacts on Maternal Health
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has had deleterious consequences on maternal health. Although the Ebola-affected countries -- namely Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone -- had some of the highest maternal mortality rates globally before the Ebola outbreak, these maternal mortality rates were declining as women "were more likely to go to a health facility to give birth and be delivered by a skilled health worker or midwife." Yet, because health facilities are deluged with Ebola patients, medical professionals at these health facilities have developed an exclusive focus on treating Ebola, at the expense of caring for expectant mothers. Compounding this problem, pregnant women also fear visiting hospitals and clinics due to the stigma attached to the Ebola virus, resultantly reducing their chances of having valuable antenatal checkups and health advice. Skilled health attendants and midwives also fear contact with bodily fluids, which transmit the Ebola virus, and thus are unwilling to deliver babies.

Since the Ebola outbreak, women have given birth on the streets and in other low-resource settings bereft of protective and sanitation supplies. In the absence of skilled care during childbirth, women are more likely to experience life-threatening complications including obstructed labor and infections. Aid charities posit that "one in seven women risk dying in childbirth in Ebola-hit countries," and in the wake of the Ebola outbreak, the maternal mortality rate is projected to skyrocket to 15 percent -- a 20-fold increase in the current rate.

Ebola's Impacts on Girls' Education
Additionally, the Ebola crisis barricades girls' access to education in West Africa, causing "major setbacks to the progress that's been made," according to Laurent Duvillier, a communication specialist at UNICEF. Despite the fact that Ebola-affected countries have had flagrant gender inequalities in education, major progress has been made to improve girls' access to education in recent years. However, since the Ebola epidemic, girls have dropped out of school because their families feel incentivized to keep them at home. When girls are at home, they undertake the role of default caretaker, to help out with family burdens, particularly taking care of family members who have contracted Ebola.

Ebola's Impacts on Sexual Violence Against Women
Reports from Ebola-affected regions heighten concerns about sexual violence against women and girls by male Ebola survivors. With schools shut down, girls run a higher risk of child marriage and early pregnancy as a result of sexual exploitation within marriage. Another noteworthy point is that because the Ebola virus suffers in the male semen for approximately three months (or 100 days) after recovery, male Ebola survivors are likely to return home post-treatment and infect their wives and sexual partners through intercourse. In addition, the culture of violence against women in these West African countries raises fears about men transmitting the Ebola virus through rape.

Ebola's Impacts on Women's Entrepreneurship
The effects of the Ebola crisis go beyond the ambit of physical well-being -- the outbreak has adversely impacted women's economic empowerment and security. Because travel between Ebola-affected regions has been restricted, women have been unable to access resources crucial to the maintaining of their businesses and their business activity has decreased significantly. Moreover, the looming threat of Ebola has caused a shutdown of vital market centers. Women entrepreneurs across West Africa have experienced plummeting sales, major losses and being forced out of businesses.

Furthermore, travel restrictions have occasioned soaring transport fares, which are reported to be 70 percent higher than they used to be. For women engaged in internal trade, problems with agricultural goods perishing due to travel delays have also posed salient risks not just for the sustaining of their small businesses, but to the health of their customers. Women entrepreneurs who take loans from financial institutions are also reporting being charged alarmingly high interest rates.

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