Nearly a year into the Ebola crisis ravaging West Africa, the deadly disease has spread far beyond the region, reaching Spain, Germany, France, Australia and the United States. As Mali becomes the latest nation to record a death from Ebola, at least 4,951 have perished, and 13,567 cases have been reported, almost all in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Buried in the media reports on the staggering infection rates and deaths is the plight of Ebola’s voiceless victims: African women.
To be sure, front-line responders, regardless of gender, have fallen victim to the Ebola epidemic. But female nurses have become the disease’s invisible prey. Women account for 55 to 60 percent of the deceased in the current epidemic, according to UNICEF. The percentage of female victims in Liberia stands at 75 percent.
The feminization of epidemics is not new to African female caregivers. For example, African women have been disproportionately affected by the HIV and AIDS epidemic. As a result, today more women than men are living with HIV and AIDS, accounting for nearly 60 percent of infections. Women and girls shoulder the bulk of the burden in caring for people living with HIV and AIDS, accounting for two-thirds to 90 percent of caregivers for people living with HIV in Africa.
Similarly, women were disproportionately affected during previous Ebola outbreaks. A 2007 study by the World Health Organization on the 2003 Ebola outbreak in the Congo and Gabon found that men deliberately made use of the social custom that women care for the sick in order to avoid contact with patients.
The stubborn intersectionality of disease, female caregivers and culture is rearing its head once more. As with HIV and AIDS, Ebola is disproportionately killing our grandmothers, mothers and sisters, in part because of their cultural roles and expectations as caregivers.
African women are culturally revered, honored and almost glamorized for their caregiving roles. As a result, the social burden of caregiving falls solely on their backs. They are expected to trade at the market and across borders and perform household duties such as cooking, feeding, bathing and cleaning open wounds and washing soiled clothes and linens, all while not wearing any form of protective clothing. In remote areas, where there is a lack of information about the disease, when Ebola patients die, women still perform the traditional rites of preparing the corpses for burial — a high-risk activity that is mostly conducted with bare hands.
That’s not all. African women are also traditional birth attendants, putting them at a greater risk of contracting the deadly virus. These caregiving roles naturally extend to the hospitals where women predominantly serve as nurses and cleaners. Unfortunately, even at these institutions, women are not provided with sufficient protective gear compared with the protection given to male doctors and other high-ranking hospital personnel, who are widely considered the experts, thus deserving more protection (and visibility).
It is imperative that caregiving responses to Ebola are gender-sensitive and recognize the value of women’s lives over the misplaced dictates of our cultures.- Ndana Bofu-Tawamba
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