THE BLOG

Women Are Being Failed in the Global Fight Against Ebola

21/01/2015 10:28 GMT | Updated 22/03/2015 09:59 GMT

This month Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) - the charity at the frontline of global efforts to fight Ebola - launched the world's first ever maternity clinic for Ebola sufferers. This is news that should be celebrated; the new centre will offer a vital lifeline to pregnant women for whom diagnosis has been a near-absolute death sentence.

But, more than a year into this brutal epidemic, this new specialist clinic is long overdue. On closer examination, the delay appears to be a part of a wider problem.

Analysis by Labour's International Development team has uncovered a deep discrepancy between women and men's health outcomes in the spread of this terrible disease.

The Ebola outbreak in the now worst-affected country, Sierra Leone (the focus of UK efforts), has shown that women are significantly more likely to be infected by this fatal epidemic than men. The latest World Health Organisation figures show that 4,423 women have been infected with the disease, compared with 4,125 men. This is both statistically and strategically significant, and so too is the trend. Since disaggregated figures have been published, the gender-gap in this West African country has been slowly growing, not shrinking.

Sadly, this is a cultural issue, not a medical one. Women's inferior status is brutally manifested in visibly higher infection rates, and analysts warn the knock-on effects of this deadly virus will also hit female family members hardest.

Women and girls are expected to care for sick family members, not men - significantly increasing their risk of exposure; and for pregnant women and nursing mothers the threat of mortality is heightened (from an already-alarming 60% death-rate).

An issue that has received considerable attention is the conflict between cultural practices which require that bodies should be washed before burial, and the characteristics of the virus which mean the fever is at its most contagious shortly after death.

Reports of a shortage of female burial operatives (against cultural norms which state that deceased women should only be washed by other women) has led to female family members cleansing bodies before a trained burial team can even arrive.

Despite this, the UK Government is not doing enough to prevent female victims of Ebola.

This Tory-led Government is quick to state that violence against women is at the heart of their approach to development. But the truth is, they have chosen to take a heavily siloed approach to tackling abusive behaviour - one that ignores male responsibility, and that prioritises retribution and 'cure', over prevention and empowerment.

Achieving true equality will require more than a standalone grandstand towards one isolated act of brutality; it needs enduring, unaffected commitment. Achieving true equality will require addressing the mundane of everyday life - and a commitment to embed equality considerations into everything we do. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than with the spread of this epidemic.

The tail of this disease will also have a long term impact on women.

The widespread closure of schools has burdened female family members with additional childcare responsibilities - and for girls who have lost their mothers it's often the end to any educational aspirations; female smallholders and traders have been cut-off from markets by strict quarantines - losing their livelihoods at a time of deep distress and panic; and women and girls who have lost (or have been separated from) their families have reportedly faced an increased threat of gender-based violence.

I'll be putting a series of questions to Justine Greening this week for urgent response. And today I'm travelling to Geneva to speak with Margaret Chan, the head of the World Health Organisation, about this issue.

Last week Ed Miliband made clear that reducing inequality will be at the core of Labour's approach to international development. Nowhere is this divide sharper than with gender disadvantage.

Tackling violence against women and girls, and the promotion of gender equity, must not take the form of a popularist pick-n-mix - where headline-grabbing gimmicks distract from a failure to embed equality into every aspect of our aid agenda. Instead our approach must address the ordinary, the unremarkable, the commonplace - it must address the daily discrimination so many women and girls face.

Gavin Shuker MP (@ShukerOffice) is the shadow minister for international development, with specific responsibility for tackling violence against women and girls