For the women of Liberia, a long road ahead to rebuild after Ebola crisis

A group of Liberian women

The deadliest Ebola outbreak on record is sweeping West Africa, with over 3,400 lives claimed already. The disease is spreading faster than ever before, with the World Health Organization estimating that 20,000 additional cases will be reported by November. And women are being affected most severely—in fact, 75 percent of those who have died from Ebola are women.

“Women have been affected in so many, many ways. Even though the disease of course affects both men and women, women are at a disadvantage—period,” says Marpue Speare, Executive Director of Women NGOs Secretariat of Liberia (WONGOSOL). “Women are on the front lines. They are the caregivers. Protective gear can be used to help, but women are dying from simple things that can be prevented,” says Speare.

“Women have been affected in so many, many ways. Even though the disease of course affects both men and women, women are at a disadvantage—period. Women are on the front lines. They are the caregivers.”
—Marpue Speare, Women NGOs Secretariat of Liberia

The need for caretakers is especially acute in rural communities where there are few health clinics, leaving the women to feed, wash, and care for Ebola victims without even basic protections such as gloves, goggles, or masks, making them extremely vulnerable to contracting the virus. Women also participate in burial rites that require handling infected bodies.

Global Fund for Women is acting quickly to provide crisis support to some of our long-standing grantee partners in Ebola-hit communities in Liberia, and through these groups, we learn how women are being disproportionately affected by the outbreak.

Local organizations picking up the slack

“The crisis is the worst in the Liberia’s history after the civil upheaval that lasted for fourteen years,” says Zaye Fanyean Zarweah of Give Them Hope, Inc., a Global Fund for Women grantee partner. “Everyone lives in fear not knowing who the next victim would be to this deadly virus. Some health workers describe an infected community or region as living near the gate of hell.”

Some of the barriers to controlling the spread of the virus include a widespread lack of education and basic knowledge about the causes of the disease and how it is spread, as well as the reluctance of many to seek treatment for a variety of reasons, including fear. For this reason supporting trusted community-led organizations that already have roots in affected areas is especially important. “[WONGOSOL] is working through our network members to tap into their own communities so that you don’t have to bring in people from the outside,” says Speare. “It works better because they have those relationships within the community. They know if a case is not yet reported, they know the right people to give them the right help. They respond better because they know one another—they are like family.”

As hospitals are overwhelmed with Ebola patients, local organizations are left to pick up the slack, especially in rural communities. For example, WONGOSOL is alsosetting up hand washing stations in various communities that have been quarantined, and providing access to basic hygiene to families who cannot afford chlorine, soap, and sanitizer to prevent the spread of the virus. Another Global Fund for Women grantee partner, The West Point Women for Health and Development Organization (WPWHDO), works in the urban community of West Point in the capital of Monrovia. WPWHDO has opened a mini care center that will meet the health care needs of people presenting symptoms but who have to wait days to be taken to the nearest hospital, a symptom of the country’s long-standing infrastructure problem.

“The country is still emerging out of war even though the war ended in 2003. There are extremely limited health facilities,” says Muadi Mukenge, the Global Fund for Women’s program director for Sub-Saharan Africa. “Women are not able to reach facilities, particularly women living in rural communities. There aren’t that many facilities to begin with, so you often have to go to another district or another province. More than 80 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, so money for transport is scarce. And so we’re really seeing a crisis in Liberia that speaks to the fact that the health system itself is particularly weak and women are feeling the brunt of that.”

No room for maternal healthcare

Even women who do not contract Ebola are at risk, as the country’s health system has been pushed to the brink by the current crisis. “Most hospitals and clinics across the country are closed for lack of protective materials and drugs,” says Zarweah of Give Them Hope, Inc., a Global Fund for Women grantee partner. Give Them Hope works with women in rural Upper Nimba County, improving maternal health services through a health clinic it operates, and offering skill-based training and education to develop more women leaders in the community.

“As we speak, pregnant women and babies are very vulnerable, as no health worker is willing to touch patients."
—Zarweah, Give Them Hope, Inc.

Maternal health services are especially important in the wake of the Ebola outbreak, since already-insufficient healthcare facilities are being stretched even thinner as they try to care for the many infected Ebola patients, meaning that pregnant women are not able to access the care they need.

“As we speak, pregnant women and babies are very vulnerable, as no health worker is willing to touch patients, especially in the rural area in Nimba where we serve,” says Zarweah of Give Them Hope, Inc. “Pregnant women are left on their own to deliver themselves on bare roads on the street. Hundreds of people have died of the virus and many pregnant women and children have died for lack of attention and intervention.” (Global Fund for Women’s support will enable Give Them Hope to raise awareness through the local FM radio and provide timely maternal health care services in rural Nimba. It will also provide for the cost of drugs, medication, services, transportation, and stipend for service deliverers, and train women on safe ways to care for sick family members.)

Survivors being left behind

Global Fund for Women allies on the ground say Ebola is also taking a serious toll on survivors, who are being rejected from the community due to fear that they might be contaminated.

“Ebola survivors are being stigmatized. If a family suffers from Ebola and they lost their loved ones because of the virus, people don’t want to associate with them,” says Speare, adding that children who are being orphaned by the disease are also stigmatized. Current reports estimate that 3,700 children have lost one or both parents so far due to Ebola. “People don’t want to associate with [the orphans] because their parents have died, and they are afraid the children have the disease. The children are also being isolated [by health workers] to make sure they are not infected. It is traumatizing for them.

“Telling the community how to receive these people and accept them back into the community is a major issue,” says Speare. “With a situation like that they have lost everything. There is absolutely nothing when they get back home—no community and no support.”

How to move forward

One thing is certain: the impact of the current Ebola epidemic on Liberians will be long-term. “In Monrovia, ambulances collect bodies every day from different communities. If you are here, you can see when people hear the sirens and see the ambulance go by, people on the sidewalk get very quiet and are very sad,” says Speare. “People who have survived have been neglected, and they are traumatized. Counseling needs to be taken seriously. Children who have lost their parents need to be supported. We need to look at women, specifically pregnant women, and caretaker women who need protective gear.”

In order to help women on the road to recovery after the crisis—and to prevent backsliding when the next crisis hits—experts say investments need to be made in women and girls’ health, education, and empowerment on an enduring basis.

“The fragility of health services in Liberia is reflected in the fact that only7 percent of the national budget is allocated to health, which translates to about $10 per person,” says Mukenge. “Liberia continues to count on donor aid for a large part of its health budget and services. Going forward, there is political will to improve the health sector, particularly in rural counties where the majority of poor women live, where there are proposed programs to trainan adequate amount ofhealth workers.

“We need to focus on strengthening local institutions long-term instead of just focusing on short-term solutions, and we need to make sure that any revitalization efforts for the economy or educational system are framed such so that they benefit women,”says Mukenge. “As long as we have these issues—lack of infrastructure, lack of education, lack of access to healthcare, lack of gender equality, and the reality of foreign-imposed restrictions—then there is going to be another crisis further down the road. And once again it will be women who will suffer the most.”

 

Your Signature at the White House

Global Fund for Women and CHANGE deliver petition to White House Office of Public Engagement

(L-R) Hallie Schneir, Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, PeiYao Chen, Director of Learning, Evaluation and Impact for Global Fund for Women, Beirne Roose-Snyder, Director of Public Policy for CHANGE.

August 4, 2014: After a tremendous effort from thousands around the globe, we delivered our petition to the White House. Now that President Obama has heard your voices and seen your signatures supporting comprehensive post-rape care for women and girls all over the world, we are hopeful that he will take action soon.

"Bringing the voices of our network to the White House made a critical difference," said PeiYao Chen, Global Fund for Women Director of Learning, Evaluation and Impact. "It is clear that President Obama is committed and ready to do the important work necessary to support survivors of rape."

Our petition closed with 12,742 signatures from around the world, with voices from Mexico to Nigeria to Brazil and all 50 states in the U.S. With our partners at the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), we shared stories from our grantee partners from Uganda to Burma to Croatia and beyond in an effort to make the voices of rape survivors around the world heard loud and clear. President Obama has heard our call to take action to clarify the Helms Amendment to ensure that women and girls around the world can access comprehensive post-rape care, including abortion.

Want to continue to join our advocacy efforts for women and girls globally? Add your voice on what #EqualityIs to you! Make a badge and be a part of our new online media project, Imagining Equality.

 

Women in Iraq Tell of Rape, Kidnappings

#Women in Iraq Tell of Rape, Kidnappings

June 24, 2014: Young men armed with assault rifles went door to door in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, taking "women who are not owned" for "Jihad Nikah" or sex Jihad. Between June 9th and June 12th, women’s rights activists documented 13 cases of women who were kidnapped and raped by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or DA’ESH, the Arabic shorthand for the group’s name. Of the 13 women, four of them committed suicide because they couldn’t stand the shame. One woman’s brother committed suicide because he could not bear the fact that he was unable to protect his sister.

This is just one account of the extreme violence in Iraq since the Sunni DA’ESH militants have seized control over large portions of the country over the past three weeks.

“Women are being taken in broad daylight,” said Yanar Mohammed, Co-Founder and President of Global Fund for Women grantee partner Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. "Men have the weapons to do whatever they want and their [DA’ESH] way of dealing with things is to kill."

Being a woman in Iraq was difficult before the conflict and now military leaders are handing guns to young untrained, undereducated and unemployed Shia men. These men are promised big salaries if they leave their homes to fight, according to an anonymous Global Fund ally in Baghdad.

"When we [women] commute to our office, walk in the street, or take the bus, we experience harassment,” said the Global Fund ally in Baghdad who remains anonymous due to security concerns. "But now, all of the men have weapons. I think maybe he will kidnap or shoot me if I don’t do what he wants. They will shoot and do anything, and because of the fatwa [urging able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms against Sunni extremists] no one asks questions."

Sectarian Violence Slows Women’s Rights Progress

With a death toll of 1,000 and rising in only three weeks, the sectarian conflict has forced most women’s rights organizations to scale back their programs. Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq was in the middle of a campaign against Article 79 of the Jaafari Personal Status Law, a law which, among other women’s rights violations, would grant custody over any child two years or older to the father in divorce cases, lower the marriage age to nine for girls and 15 for boys, and even open the door for girls younger than nine to be married with a parent’s approval. Now, it takes everything they have to keep their shelters open and women safe.

"We cannot speak of women’s rights now unless we are speaking of the livelihood of those who are totally jeopardized, such as women who lost families and young girls who are vulnerable to corrupt officials or clerics,” said Yanar. “We went from legal work and improving rights of women to working in a state of emergency and trying to find the lowest chain in society and get them to safety."

The Tangled Web the U.S. Wove

The extreme sectarian violence is a relatively new phenomenon in Iraq, taking up speed during the U.S. invasion in 2003, reflects Yanar, who is "sick and tired" of western pundits on TV saying there is no hope for Iraq.

"Mainstream media trashing Iraqi people is unbearable and is a total manipulation of the facts of America’s role in dividing Iraqi people,” said Yanar. “The political process that the US government put in place is a total failure and they [US] just left. The damage is not on them, it’s on us now."

The damage comes in the form of, among others, a generation that didn’t have access to education.

"This generation listens to whatever the clerics and politicians say," said Yanar. "They are ready to throw themselves in the fire and they do it in the name of their Imam...Both politicians and religious heads are pushing the country into a very sectarian divide and it’s frightening."

Refugees Flee to Kurdish Region

As the fighting intensifies in northern and western Iraq, over 300,000 have already fled to the Kurdish region for safety, where UNHCR and other relief organizations set up a refugee camp in the arid region of Khazer.

"It is very hot and there is no water; we were not prepared for this influx of refugees,” says a Global Fund ally in Erbil, a city in Kurdistan. “The situation is by no means sustainable. The majority has nowhere to go and is staying in parks. Entire families are left without the most basic of shelters, food and clothes.

"While these waves of displacement to Kurdistan includes Shias, Sunnis, and Christian families, the pressure on Iraqi Christians have been strongest due to DA’ESH’s infamous brutality.

"Christian women in the areas controlled by DA’ESH are forced to wear hijab or face death," said a Global Fund ally who lives in Baghdad. "They must pay a protection tax, or ‘jizyah’ to DA’ESH to stay safe."

If the violence is not seriously addressed, our ally in Erbil says Iraqi women know exactly what is going to happen next because they have endured it over and over again since the U.S. invasion in 2003, and during the first and second Gulf War.

"We know what has happened to women in Iraq – a lot of murders and violations – and we have already suffered to an unbearable extent," said Global Fund ally in Erbil. "There is nothing they haven’t done to us; which is why panic spreads among women as soon as we hear of another crisis. Women are used as a weapon for retaliation."

 

Death Threat Against Global Fund Advisor in Mauritania

Mauritania - Death Threat Against Global Fund Advisor and Global Media Monitoring Project coordinator Ms Aminetou Mint El Moctar

Global Fund for Women and International Ambassadors of the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) are greatly concerned about the safety of the Global Fund for Women adviser and Mauritanian GMMP national coordinator Ms. Aminetou Mint El Moctar.

According to information from the International Federation for Human Rights, the leader of a radical Muslim group “Ahbab Errassoul” (“Friends of the Prophet”) Mr Yadhih Ould Dahi issued a fatwa on June 6, 2014 calling for her death.

Global Fund board member, Ms. Sharon Bhagwan-Rolls, President and CEO of Global Fund, Dr Musimbi Kanyoro, and Ms. Jennifer Lee together with WACC General Secretary Dr Karin Achtelstetter call upon the GMMP network to express their solidarity in support of Aminetou Mint El Moctar.

Ms. Aminetou Mint El Moctar is a decorated human rights activist. She chairs the Association of female heads of household (l’Association des femmes chefs de famille), a non-governmental organisation that promotes human rights and defends the rights of women and children in Mauritania. She is the country coordinator of the Global Media Monitoring Project in Mauritania.

In 2009, Aminetou Mint Moctar spearheaded highly visible public campaigns to denounce trafficking of young Mauritanian girls to Gulf States and the exploitation of Mauritanian and West African women living in domestic servitude. Because of the work of Ms. Mint Moctar and others like her, the Government of Mauritania now recognizes the existence of these practices.

The threat called for the killing and gouging out the eyes of Moctar after she spoke to the mass media about the general situation of human rights in the country and the particular case of Mohamed Ould M’kheitir. M’kheitir has been in detention since December 2013 after being accused of apostasy. Moctar called for a fair trial for M’kheitir while making it very clear that she does not condone insults against the Prophet.

Dr. Kanyoro commenting on the situation underlines the hazards women human rights defenders encounter in the course of their work: “Women human rights defenders face additional risks because of the very nature of the problems they work to address, which require questioning and transforming social norms and taboos.”

GMMP ambassadors and the WACC General Secretary call on the authorities of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania:

1. To guarantee Ms. Aminetou Mint El Moctar’s physical safety and psychological wellbeing.

2. To carry out a prompt, thorough, impartial and transparent investigation be all those responsible for the threats and bring them to justice according to the law;

3. To put an end to all forms of harassment against Ms. Aminetou Mint El Moctar so that she can carry out her work freely and without hindrance;

4. To comply with the provisions of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1998, and specifically:

  • Article 1: Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.
  • Article 9.1: In the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the promotion and protection of human rights as referred to in the present Declaration, everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to benefit from an effective remedy and to be protected in the event of the violation of those rights.
  • Article 12.2: The State shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration.
  • Article 12.3: In this connection, everyone is entitled, individually and in association with others, to be protected effectively under national law in reacting against or opposing, through peaceful means, activities and acts, including those by omission, attributable to States that result in violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as acts of violence perpetrated by groups or individuals that affect the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
  • The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders is based on human rights standards enshrined in other international instruments that are legally binding such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Mauritania is a member state.

5. To comply with the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and regional and international instruments on human and women’s rights ratified by Mauritania.

Global Fund for Women, GMMP Ambassadors and the WACC General Secretary call on the members of the GMMP network to do whatever they can in their local contexts to raise awareness of the plight of Ms. Aminetou Mint El Moctar and to express their solidarity with her.

 

U.S. and International NGO Leaders Call on Kerry to Ensure Global Sexual Violence Summit Addresses Access to Abortion

WASHINGTON, D.C. – May 29, 2014 — Nearly 70 leaders of U.S. and international organizations committed to human rights and the sexual and reproductive health of women and girls globally sent a letter today to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asking him to “accelerate U.S. leadership in ensuring women and girls who are raped have access to post-rape care that is comprehensive and rights-based,” calling U.S. leadership for care that includes abortion access “critical.”

The letter, coordinated by the Global Fund for Women and the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), includes signers from 35 nations such as: AIDS Accountability International (South Africa); Amnesty International USA (United States); Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW, Malaysia); Association of Women’s Organizations in Jamaica (Jamaica); B.a.B.e. (Croatia); Human Rights Watch (United States); Red Nacional de Mujeres (Colombia); Synergie des Femmes pour les Victimes des Violences Sexuelles (SFVS, Democratic Republic of Congo); United Nations Foundation (United States); World YWCA (Switzerland).

In June, the U.S. is expected to take a leadership role in the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, hosted in London by U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague. “The London Summit will be an opportunity for the U.S. government to demonstrate its ongoing commitment to the prevention of and response to global sexual violence,” the letter stated.

“Where the United States chooses to direct its money and how it shapes its policies has a ripple effect throughout the world,” said Global Fund for Women President and CEO Dr. Musimbi Kanyoro. “Now, with the momentum of the summit propelling us forward, it is time to support comprehensive sexual and reproductive healthcare for women and girls, including access to safe abortion when required.”

“We applaud the U.S. for its leadership in addressing gender-based violence globally,” said CHANGE President Serra Sippel. “However, the conversation cannot stop at prevention. It is imperative that the response to rape in conflict and crisis is a pivotal part of the conversation at the summit and beyond. This letter shows that there is significant support to ensure access to comprehensive post-rape care, including abortion.”

“We…ask that leading up to – and during – the London Summit, the U.S. be bold in its call for a global response to sexual violence against women and girls that addresses both prevention and the response to sexual violence,” the letter stated. “Most urgently, we ask that the U.S. specifically endorse a complete medical response to sexual violence that includes access to safe abortion services, in addition to emergency contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancy and post-exposure prophylactics to prevent HIV infection.”

The letter follows a larger effort to secure executive action from President Obama on the Helms amendment – a decades-old provision that forbids the U.S. to fund abortion services as a method of family planning but does not prohibit such funding in the cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. Lack of clarity around the Helms amendment has resulted in its misapplication as a complete ban. It also comes on the heels of a letter to President Obama from more than 30 faith-based leaders urging the president to take executive action on Helms, calling access to abortion a “moral imperative.”

Attention Reporters and News Editors: For a copy of the letter to Secretary Kerry, and complete list of signers, click here.

Media Contact: Zoe Blumenfeld, Communications Manager, Global Fund for Women, 415-248-4854, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Media Contact: Joanna Kuebler, Communications Director, CHANGE, 202-910-6526

 
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