Gender and Ebola

Drafted by Abdul Manaff Kemokai (Executive Director, DCI-SL) and edited by Momo Turay


Local activists, including Defence for Children International Sierra Leone (DCI-SL) and others involved in the fight against the Ebola Virus in Sierra Leone, have been swift to use the gender lenses on the crisis.


Although at the moment the official statistics released to the public are not usually disaggregated by age and sex, DCI-SL has observed that women and girls are at greater risk of contracting the disease than men and boys. Anecdotal evidence support this statement and the United Nations Agencies and others have re-echoed this.


UNICEF in particular has reported that women across the three most affected countries account for 55 to 60 percent of the death toll.  


DCI-SL believes that this heightened risk is the result of traditional gender roles, wherein women – both formally, as first line health care workers and informally, within the family and community - are often intimately involved in the care of the sick and dying and in the handling of the bodies of those who have passed away.  Women also tend to have domestic responsibilities within the community that involve high contact with others, putting them at an increased risk of exposure.

Despite this involvement, Sierra Leone’s official response to the Ebola crisis is in desperate need of an integrated gender perspective and the voices of women.


Key facts DCI-SL has observed:


Firstly, nurses in Sierra Leone are predominantly women and needless to say they have been heavily hit. Out of the 50 health workers who have lost their lives to Ebola, over 65% were women.  Also, women tend to be some of the most frequent visitors to hospitals and health centers, as they are often accompanying children or being monitored during pregnancy.


Secondly, the domestic roles that women and girls perform increase their exposure to Ebola and other contagious infections. Women tend to be the primary caregivers of the sick, the aged, and children. They usually stay at home to receive and attend to visitors including strangers. In addition, most of the domestic chores undertaken by women increase their interaction greatly with their neighbors and other members of the community. Women and girls go to the market to buy food items for the home and/or selling these food items. Market places, particularly in the cities and big towns, are usually over-crowded and people who go there cannot avoid contacts with others due to overcrowding and chaotic nature of the environment. In caring for orphans women play the lead and greater role.  For example, a frontline officer of the Family Support Unit (FSU) of the Sierra Leone Police died after she volunteered to foster an Ebola orphan who ended up infecting her. Both the child and the FSU officer died in this month of October 2014 from the virus.

Traditionally, women are also responsible for the washing of dead bodies of deceased women and children. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has reported that 70 - 80% of all new cases nationally are caused by people having contact with the bodies of those who have died from Ebola, and this percentage is increasing. Further, when death occurs relatives and friends often come to sympathize and are expected to stay with the deceased family until the 40th day ceremony is done. Women are typically the ones to stay at these funeral homes to sympathize, provide support, and help the deceased family to organize all the funeral ceremonies required. Other traditional practices such as female genital mutilation are not only gender-based violence, but also put women at risk for Ebola and other infections.


With all the above observations, the response program is still male dominated. Men are at the helm of all initiatives, controlling resources and determining how they should be distributed - even though they are less affected than women.


In response to this gendered dimension of the Ebola crisis, the young women of the “Defence for Girls, Girl Power program” have been offering support to girls and young women in vulnerable situations, particularly those now affected by Ebola. Their plan is to provide them with important information and life-building skills that increase their resilience, develop their coping mechanisms, and above all, give them hope. As such, the newly formed organization has been named HOPE GIRLS SIERRA LEONE. Despite lack of funding, the group is playing an important role in sharing information with the government on how girls and women are affected, what can be done to address the problem, and how the government can improve its interventions. Through the support of Defence for Children International, they have taken up the challenge to reach out to girls and young women in the communities to give them information on how to deal with the Ebola .


The following have been proposed as key in fighting the EVD.

  • Encourage young women to tackle the barriers and pursue careers that limit their vulnerability to diseases

  • Don’t keep women out of decision making. At the same time, they are calling on the government and other authorities to address the institutional barriers and sexism that holds women back. This means challenging the chain of patriarchal succession of governance as one aspect of breaking the chain of Ebola transmission.

  • Defence for Children International – Sierra Leone strongly urges the government and international partners to rebuild the entire health system of Sierra Leone as an integral part of the Ebola fight.

  • DCI-SL strongly recommends that any opportunity for future training of health personnel, including scholarships, must give equal opportunity to men and women, boys and girls. Finally,

  • Specific program targeting women and providing them with sufficient information on prevention and response should be a included in the national program and

  • Women must be involved at all levels – from the community to the national level - in shaping the country’s response to this crisis.