Lessons from the Ebola Outbreak
Previous responses to public health crises such as the Ebola outbreak of 2014-16 have highlighted the importance of gender dynamics in designing communication and intervention strategies. Because such outbreaks exert unequal impacts across gender and socio-economic strata, it is critical for emergency response interventions to consult women-led, grassroots-level, civil society organizations (CSOs) in an effort to address these inequalities. By August 2014, five months after the Ebola virus was confirmed in Guinea, infection among women outpaced that of men. According to The Independent, across Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea collectively, 55-60% of those who died as a result of the virus were women. In Liberia alone, the government reported that 75% of Ebola casualties were women. This comes as no surprise, as women’s increased exposure to any disease is a result of constructed gender roles. Women are often on the front lines of such crises, serving either as primary caregivers of the sick at home or as nurses and custodians at hospitals.
The Gendered Impact of COVID-19
The most recent data released by UN Women on the gendered impacts of COVID-19 reveal that globally, women comprise 70% of workers in the health and social sectors. In Italy and Spain, reported COVID-19 cases among female healthcare workers are twice those of their male counterparts. Moreover, women do three times as much unpaid care and domestic work averaging 4.1 hours/day versus 1.7 hours/day by men: a reality that can result in long-term consequences for their economic security. Poverty heightens the exposure to and impact of COVID-19 as low-income groups are unable to stock up on essentials and can’t afford to stay at home. In the last 12 months, 243 million women and girls aged 15 to 49 have been subjected to sexual and/or physical violence by an intimate partner. Police and helplines have also registered an increase in calls by up to 30-40%, pointing to a likely increase in domestic violence.
Importance of CSOs in Policy-Making
Civil society organizations are critical to international development in that they provide humanitarian relief and basic services, innovate service delivery, build local and national disaster response capacities, and advocate for the poor. In most disasters, the first few hours and days are critical, especially the first 72 hours. During this period, immediate illnesses and/or injuries must be addressed, and water and shelter must be provided to prevent the loss of lives. Moreover, critical services and infrastructure must often be strengthened or replaced so that relief can be provided to those who need it most. In such times, the most effective responses come from those present on the scene. In this way, grassroots organizations are well-positioned to provide aid that adapts according to changing needs on the ground. As the likelihood of confusion increases with the scale of the emergency, innovation and improvisation are crucial in order to achieve effective responses. Research has found that affected communities themselves are the best sources of such innovation, and the stronger the community, the more efficient and resourceful their efforts.
An Intersectional, Bottom-up Approach
Since immediate relief is usually provided by those closest to the scene of a disaster, there is a greater need to support civil society organizations – particularly, women-led nonprofits and grassroots organizations. Despite irrefutable data suggesting that women-led nonprofits are more impactful, in fragile countries, less than 1% of aid is designated for women’s nonprofits. A bottom-up approach to this problem would enable local leaders at the frontlines of emergencies to communicate their knowledge and needs effectively, while simultaneously empowering them to respond more efficiently. Policy-makers, state-run emergency response agencies, donors, and other major actors within the social change sector would therefore do well to adopt an intersectional approach to supporting local CSOs through:
- a more targeted, gender-sensitive implementation of training programs for local leaders (particularly women) to develop a culture of preparedness,
- the identification and sharing of best practices and lessons learned, and
- a focus on channeling more funding to women and minority-led, grassroots organizations.
Meaningful change comes from the ground up, and by empowering and listening carefully to the needs of frontline first responders and primary caregivers, more powerful and effective responses to emergencies can be achieved.
This article was written by HasNa President, Rukmini Banerjee.