Ebola spreads through contact with infected bodily fluids. Because women in West Africa tend to the sick and dying as caretakers and are more likely than men to wash bodies before burial, they are at higher risk for contracting the virus. In many places in West Africa, international aid groups are distributing protective equipment to burial teams in order to reduce exposure to the virus while preserving traditional rituals.
West African women’s occupations also put them at risk of exposure to the Ebola virus. Women are birthing attendants, nurses, cleaners and laundry workers in hospitals in greater numbers than men. And women make up the majority of cross-border traders, increasing the potential of spreading the virus to other traders, who in turn are likely to be women.
What can be done?
Educate women about the disease. Women are the main “conduits of information in their communities,” said Maricel Seeger, a World Health Organization spokeswoman in Monrovia, Liberia.
Improve maternal health services. The urgency of the outbreak leaves fewer doctors and resources for pregnant women. Clinics hesitate to admit women in labor who do not have Ebola for fear they might catch the virus once they enter a clinic.
Train local organizations to respond to cases. Because community-led groups already have the trust of the town, they are fast and reliable responders.
Until issues such as lack of infrastructure, lack of education, limited access to health care, and gender inequality are addressed, “there is going to be another crisis further down the road, and once again it will be women who will suffer the most,” said Muadi Mukenge, the Global Fund for Women’s program director for sub-Saharan Africa.