Opinion

Sierra Leonean Women and the Ebola Pandemc

23 August 2014 at 23:22 | 7565 views

By Zainab Tunkara Clarkson.*

As the dreaded ebola virus disease (EVD) ravages across West Africa with a vengeance, afflicting young and old with merciless impunity, it is unfortunate to note that women are bearing the brunt of this horrible epidemic.

The deadly Ebola disease ravaging the west coast of Africa has so far claimed the lives of at least 1,350 victims in the mainly affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone according to a recent World Health Organization update. The outbreak first started in neighboring Guinea in February 2014 and extended to Sierra Leone and Liberia exposing more countries to the risk as the virus continues to spread in the region and beyond.

Our people are dying almost daily falling victim to the disease. The fight against Ebola is now beyond the scope of one country because the virus knows no boundaries, nationality and gender. Therefore no one knows where next the deadly virus could strike. Women, who make up a large part of the population are bearing the greater brunt of the disease. As a very important part of their families, communities and national development they are clearly the backbone of the informal economy. They are business savvy, strong and are always ready to do anything and everything to care for their families.

This means anything that adversely affects women would affect children, families, communities and eventually would adversely reflect on the national economy.

Last year, I relocated to Freetown from London to a head a project called “The Organisation of Women Networks for Entrepreneurs”, designed to be a national body for businesswomen in Sierra Leone that focuses on addressing unique challenges women face in business and this virus just brings home those honest truths.

One only needs to look at the statistics from the government of Sierra Leone with regards to infection rate to see that of all the afflicted people in Sierra Leone, 59% of the casualties are women compared with 41% of them being men. Of these victims, 54% are of reproductive age, which of course has dire consequences for the future.

Female nurses on the frontline are also dying in unfortunate numbers due to a lack of protective materials. Seventy percent of the nurses who have died on the frontline treating victims of EVD have been female. Apart from the health implications, the epidemic has also battered Sierra Leone’s economy brutally, with women bearing the brunt of this collapse.

Across large swathes of rural Sierra Leone, small and medium sized enterprises have closed due to restrictions on the free movement of goods and services. In addition, the Sierra Leonean border with Guinea has been closed, cutting off a vital supply route for raw materials and a market for finished goods.

All in all, this has grossly impoverished the Sierra Leonean woman terribly and apart from the general response to the crisis, certain gender-specific measures are also needed to reverse this trend. As we speak, several groups are requesting of the first lady, Madam Sia Nyama Koroma and the Ministry of Gender Affairs to put in place contingency plans to help address their plight. This has been traumatizing for households across the country, particularly those headed by women, leaving feelings of hopelessness among a group of people that were already vulnerable.

As a matter of fact, the economy is showing signs of distress as the Ebola epidemic takes it toil as a large percentage of women are engaged in informal sector activities which has proven to be extremely vulnerable in such a volatile environment. Due to the epidemic, Sierra Leone is starting to experience a meltdown of both the formal and informal market activities and these are expected to worsen; according to medical charity Doctors without Borders- MSF, it could take six months to bring the epidemic under control.

With the domestic private sector being a major key to sustainable development, there is an urgent need to conduct an impact assessment to identify gaps and understanding of the economic implication this will have on the economy and which sectors would be the most vulnerable. We need to develop a Private Sector Recovery Strategy taking into account, healthcare, hospitality, agriculture and soaring prices of basic commodities. Recovery must centre on nation building with all stakeholders such as civil society, the private sector and the government.
Even before the outbreak of EVD, discrimination against Sierra Leonean women was multifaceted, brutal and widespread. Traditionally it has always been more prevalent in areas that affect the economic status of women in society such as a lack of access to resources, loans to finance businesses, freehold land to serve as collateral on loans, education for a competitive advantage and healthcare.

Furthermore, discrimination through social norms is often hidden, yet serves as an important source of gender inequality in Sierra Leone where formal institutions and governance structures are less robust. Given the devastation this ebola virus has caused and its particularly brutal effect on women now is the time to address these norms.

Given the devastation this ebola virus has caused particularly on women, now is the time to address these challenges. As the old saying goes: There is always a silver lining in every cloud. Or if we want to use the African version: Whenever the king’s palace burns, it leads to the construction of a better one. Now is the time to build from the ashes.

Ebola should be used as a harbinger of change that will bring about long-term changes which will not only address these unfair disadvantages women suffer but in the course of that will also equip us to deal with such emergencies in the future. Functional health care delivery systems across rural Sierra Leone will always be female-based, so it is in the interest of everyone that we empower women in our society.

If we care about poverty we should care about women, if we care about the economy we should care about the economic plight of women. If we care about children, family and communities then we should care about the women that form the nucleus and heartbeat of our communities. The solutions most be direct, specific, wholesome and sustainable.

They must be include:

a. Steps to bring women to the decision-making table particularly with respect to decisions affecting the lives and livelihood of women, backed by the right political will. We cannot continue to have men making all the decisions for us all the time, nor can we get any better group to advocate for themselves than the very women affected by the crisis.

b. Steps to promote the rights of women and their understanding of such rights, including changes to the cultural norms that discriminate against them. Programs on economic empowerment resulting in better opportunities through training, access to loans with lower interest rates, necessary equipment and materials to rehabilitate their businesses and their communities

Let us turn this tragedy into an opportunity. The time to start is now and the place to start is here.

*Zainab Tunkara Clarkson is Development Consultant and heads the program for The Organisation of Women Networks for Entrepreneurs (Owners) a national network of female entrepreneurs in Sierra Leone which seeks to empower women in business. She has worked extensively in private, public and civil Society sectors across UK in Senior Management positions. Zainab is a strong advocate for Race and Gender Equality and the welfare of African Children and she is an expert in the field of diversity issues.

Zainab currently serves as a Trustee on the Board of the Greenwich Inclusion Project, as well as AFRUCA – Africans Unite against Child Abuse (UK). Ms Tunkara Clarkson is also a Board Member of Teach For Sierra Leone. She is the Children and Gender Editor and Marketing Director of Voices from the Diaspora Radio Network.

She has a BA degree in Business and Marketing from Sussex University, a postgraduate degree in NGO and International Development Management from the University of East London and a post graduate Diploma in Public Health.

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