6 Thursday, November 2014

In communities battling Ebola, ‘girls . . . are the last to get anything’

--- Benedicte Kurzen/Noor Patients in serious condition await treatment at a clinic in Monrovia in September.
— Benedicte Kurzen/Noor
Patients in serious condition await treatment at a clinic in Monrovia in September.

Dorcas’ mother was a nurse who contracted Ebola treating a patient in the Sierra Leone clinic where she worked.

When she took ill, Dorcas cared for her.

Soon, the 17-year-old, her older sister and both of her parents were sick with the virus that has killed at least 4,800 in the West African countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia since March.

Dorcas’ mother died in the hospital, as did her sister. Even while battling her own illness, the teen nursed her father until his own death in the same quarantined ward where she was confined.

Dorcas survived and is now the primary caregiver for two younger siblings.

“I got Ebola out of love,” she told activist Chernor Bah during his recent fact-finding mission to Sierra Leone, where he spoke with more than 30 young girls who’d survived the deadly virus but now faced uncertain futures.

In our last post, we told you of Bah’s upcoming mission to the country of his birth. There he hoped to discover how tapping into community-based girls’ networks—like one he helped establish called SALONE—could help stem the spread of Ebola.

Understandably, the country’s meager resources have been redirected to the fight against Ebola. But that’s meant that health, education and nutrition programs designed to primarily benefit girls and adolescents are functioning with less and less—if they’re functioning at all.

That has left girls like Dorcas with very little support and in greater danger of not only contracting the disease but of engaging in risky behaviors to secure food, shelter and medicine for themselves and their families.

--- Benedicte Kurzen/Noor  Neighbors and family of a Liberian patient who died of Ebola in September watch as Red Cross workers retrieve his body.
— Benedicte Kurzen/Noor
Neighbors and family of a Liberian patient who died of Ebola in September watch as Red Cross workers retrieve his body.

Rather than harnessing the power of these already-established adolescent networks, responders to the crisis have left them “on the sidelines” for now, Bah says in a recent Huffington Post report. With schools closed indefinitely and no coordinated effort to establish safe gathering places for these girls, Bah and others worry the Ebola epidemic could touch off a cascading series of crises for girls: a spike in sexual exploitation, increases in teenage pregnancy and child marriage, and a rise in fistula and maternal mortality.

“Investing in girls—making sure they have the right knowledge, food, emotional support, a place to meet each other—has to be at the core of the social response to this epidemic,” Bah writes. “. . . I noticed during my trip that when emergency distributions are done in quarantined communities, they are given through traditional power structures and to ‘heads of households.’ Girls, who bear the biggest burden, are the last to get anything.

“Making sure that they are targeted, with clearly branded, designated assets and services is the key in my view to ultimately defeating this virus and other ills in our society. If we don’t begin with the girls we will never get to them. What they have and control will trickle up and out whereas there is no trickle down to them.”

Contributions to help cover the cost of supplies and mentoring for girls in the communities impacted by Ebola can be mailed to The Rev. Shelley McDade, Church of the Ascension, 12 W. 11th Street, New York, NY  10011. Please write “Girls in Ebola Fund” on the memo line.

“If dedicated, community-based girl programs were a great idea before the outbreak,” writes Bah, “they are an absolutely essential one now.

You can read Bah’s Huffington Post piece here and see his video diary and another interview on Ebola Deeply.

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