Zainab Tunkara Clarkson
The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 22 August 2014
The marginalisation of women in Sierra Leone generally makes them highly vulnerable in society. And there is plenty of evidence now to suggest that, they are the group most affected by the deadly Ebola virus, sweeping across the West African sub-region.
The Ebola disease has so far claimed the lives of at least 1,229 victims in the mainly affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone according to the World Health Organization.
The outbreak first started in neighboring Guinea in February 2014 and extended to Sierra Leone and Liberia, exposing more countries to the risk as it spreads across the region and beyond.
People are dying every day – falling victim to the disease. The fight against Ebola is now beyond the scope of one country, because the virus knows no boundaries, nationalities, or gender.
Hence, no one knows where next the deadly virus could strike. Women, who make up a large part of the population, are now bearing the greatest brunt of the disease.
Women are 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 suggests that, anything which adversely affects women could have dire consequences for children, families, communities and eventually would 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”.
The project is designed as a national body for businesswomen in Sierra Leone, focusing on addressing the unique challenges women face in business. But Ebola has today brought home some honest truths.
One only need to look at the Ebola infection rates to see that in Sierra Leone – 59% of the casualties are women, compared with 41% of them being men.
54% of affected women 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 the lack of protective wear and generally poor health systems.
70% of the nurses who have died on the frontline treating victims of EVD are female.
Apart from the health implications, the epidemic has also battered Sierra Leone’s economy brutally, with women again, bearing the brunt of this economic 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 Leone border with Guinea has been closed, cutting off a vital supply route for raw materials and a market for finished goods.
This crisis is calling out for gender-specific measures that will help reverse this downward spiral.
As we speak, several groups are asking the wife of the president – Madam Sia Nyama Koroma and the Ministry of Gender, to put contingency plans in place that could help address the plight of women.
Ebola is traumatizing for households across the country, particularly those headed by women, creating feelings of hopelessness among a group of people that were already vulnerable.
The economy is now showing signs of distress, as the Ebola epidemic take its toll.
A large percentage of women engaged in the informal sector, are now more than ever, extremely vulnerable in this volatile environment.
Due to the epidemic, Sierra Leone has started to experience a meltdown of both the formal and informal market activities, and this is likely to get worse.
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; understand the economic implications Ebola will have on the economy, as well as the sectors that are most vulnerable.
We need to develop a Private Sector Recovery Strategy, taking into account – healthcare, agriculture and the soaring prices of basic commodities.
Recovery from Ebola must centre on nation building, with all stakeholders including civil society, private sector and the government, working in partnership.
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; lack of access to resources, finance, 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 traditional norms.
Given the devastation this Ebola virus has caused particularly on women, now is the time to address the challenges they face.
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 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-centred, 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 must be direct, specific, wholesome and sustainable. It must 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 strong 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 a 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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