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How Female Empowerment Can Stop Ebola and Power Innovation

Mariama Kabia

Cofounder and President, Memunatu Magazine
Young girl from Memunatu program, Sierra Leone, Africa

Fact: The Ebola crisis continues to drastically affect communities in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. We see stalled economies, thousands dead, and thousands more left to live with the psychological and social effects for year to come.

West African women and girls are the most affected.

Through my work with Memunatu Magazine, I have seen how Ebola has created challenges communicating with teenage girls in Sierra Leone and Liberia. The issue goes beyond teens. As time goes on, the epidemic worsens systemic issues related to women’s health, education, and social welfare. Though widespread Ebola prevention and treatment are important, we, the public, cannot continue to ignore the disproportionate impact of Ebola on women and girls. Ignoring this impact would trigger long-term problems in all areas of society.

Here are three reasons why, even during the Ebola crisis, female empowerment is an important issue to tackle:

Women Power the Economy

As economic activity from agriculture and trade declines, food shortages increase, raising prices, and creating economic hardship for families across the affected region. Though women and girls typically provide supplemental income for their families by working in the marketplace, fear of disease transmission, restricted operating hours, aversion, and other behavioral impacts described in the World Bank Ebola report, drive many away. The result? A stunted economy that hurts both supply and demand. These factors create big waves in the informal sector, which according to the African Development Bank, contributes nearly 55 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP and 80% of the labor force. It is here where most employees are women and youth.

Mobilizing women and girls will prevent the entire economy from halting all together.

Caregivers Are Women and Girls

In families, women and girls are often tasked with watching over the sick. This role is rooted in cultural expectations that we have seen play out negatively in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. With the Ebola epidemic, women are increasingly at the front lines of a particularly deadly disease. If a sick family member dies, it is the caregiver who is most often stigmatized and further marginalized.

Providing women with information and tools to care for their family members is key to debunking healthcare myths and increasing care-seeking. Though this does not change cultural norms, it does equip women to improve their own outcomes.

Closed Schools Put Girls At Risk

Schools in Sierra Leone and Liberia have been closed since September. This means that neither boys nor girls have received formal education for roughly 100 days. The effects are particularly alarming for girls who, even pre-Ebola, were behind their male counterparts. In 2014 29 percent of girls in Liberia at the secondary school level were out of school compared to 21% of boys. The literacy gap in the 15-24 age range is wider: only 37 percent for girls but 63 percent for boys. From being out of school during the crisis, girls are, according to UN Women, more susceptible to sexual exploitation and gender-based violence. The forecast for girls in these countries post-Ebola is not particularly uplifting. Research from ILO and others show that when families are faced with financial strain, they tend to send their boys to school over their girls. Girls are instead made to do household chores or work in the market.

Programs that promote learning during the time students are out of school will have positive social impact, particularly for girls.

It matters—now what?

Given these dangers, how do we empower women and girls? Early steps include involving women in designing projects and decision-making for what happens next. Importantly, it is remembering that building human capacity now, especially for women and girls, will help these societies rebuild. With short and long-term problems, we cannot afford to wait until Ebola crisis is over to start.

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Mariama Kabia

Cofounder and President, Memunatu Magazine

Mariama Kabia is a 2014 graduate of Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is cofounder and president of Memunatu Magazine, Inc a social enterprise that promotes literacy, leadership, and empowerment…