Viewpoints

Trudy Rubin: Women are essential to stopping Ebola

Here’s some essential info you may not know about halting the spread of Ebola.

It depends on the women.

Stopping the contagion in West Africa is key to preventing its spread to other countries, and rural African women are key to halting its transmission – if they can be mobilized to teach fellow villagers how to avoid infection. Toward that end, the global humanitarian aid agency Mercy Corps is ramping up a massive grassroots public-health education campaign in Liberia.

And a Philadelphia-based group, Women’s Campaign International, which has trained 20,000 Liberian women in leadership skills in the last six years, has already mobilized hundreds of women to educate their fellow villagers, while helping feed families under quarantine. These women are working in remote areas, where little or no medical help has arrived, and locals have no idea how to keep the virus from spreading. And, mercifully, none of WCI’s volunteers has gotten sick.

“We have already done Ebola work in 60 villages in every region of Liberia, and we could do 10 times more than that with more funding,” says WCI’s founder, Marjorie Margolies, the former congresswoman from Montgomery County. “These are women who live in the villages and are trusted. They are trained and anxious to do something.”

To understand why these women (and some male volunteers) are so important to containing the outbreak, I spoke by Skype to two WCI staffers in Liberia. Here’s what I learned.

“There is not enough help reaching remote areas, because most people are focused on high-population areas,” said Wyeatta Moore, a program officer at WCI headquarters in the capital, Monrovia. She is a single mother with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, and an 8-year-old son who worries because she is working herself into exhaustion. “Today I got a call from one of my women who asked me, ‘Have you forgotten us?’ “ Moore continued. “She said a lot of families are quarantined and they have no food.”

Without food and water, people exposed to the virus are likely to break quarantine to seek sustenance for their families. Even if there is a treatment center reachable by foot or motorbike, they may avoid it because they believe they won’t get help there or because they distrust strangers.

“In rural areas, if they see a white man or a stranger from outside, they think they brought Ebola,” Moore said. “They are not comfortable with people from outside.”

This is where the local women can make such a difference.

WCI has cadres of women all over the country who have attended training courses, funded by U.S. government grants and private donors, on how to do community organizing, run small businesses, or campaign for local or national political office. Graduates of the program often form women’s councils in their village or district.

“We train women who are illiterate but who could run small countries,” Margolies said. “These are the women in villages who know the people who are having problems.”

Wilfred Kokeh, WCI’s field officer in Ganta, a town near the epicenter of the Liberian epidemic, tells me on a flickering Skype screen, in between periods of electricity blackout what these women are doing. “Our people are ready to go house to house and to identify who is sick and who needs what,” he said.

The women can deliver food to people who are under quarantine. They can instruct families on how to sanitize a house, during an illness or after a death. They can conduct a grassroots education campaign, telling people that Ebola is real, that they should not touch sick relatives, or at least keep a sick child away from the rest of the family, and that they should report an ill relative to government officials.

And, critically important, Kokeh said, a father of two, his volunteers can instruct families on what to do about dead bodies.

“This is one of the reasons the epidemic spreads, because bodies are not moved for days,” he said, given a shortage of grave diggers and grave sites. “People have to be told not to come in contact with the bodies.” (WCI women have been finding male volunteers who can find new grave sites, dig the graves, and tell county health workers where to pick up the corpses.)

“In Ganta,” Kokeh said, “we were able to stop Ebola because we had a community-based approach, with a very strong women’s group.”

But to expand this work, WCI needs more funds to train additional female volunteers in Ebola prevention practices that they can then pass on in their villages. The group needs money to pay the volunteers a small stipend (most Liberians are now out of work) and to buy food for those in quarantine, along with clothes, chlorine, buckets, sanitizers and soap.

According to Margolies, WCI hopes to work with Mercy Corps on the latter’s Liberian public education campaign.

This is already clear: A massive grassroots campaign will be key to forestalling the World Health Organization’s prediction of as many as 10,000 new cases of Ebola every week by December.

“To save Liberia from dying, we need to treat and educate people where they live,” Kokeh said.

Liberian women are ready, if they get the support they need.

Trudy Rubin’s email is trubin@phillynews.com.

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