A time of tears, sorrow, stigmatisation and isolation is how one of 28 Too Many's partners in Sierra Leone describes the impact of the Ebola outbreak. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 13,000 people have been infected and over 5,000 have died during the outbreak which has been concentrated in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Libera.
Since 2012 we have been researching female genital mutilation (FGM) in Sierra Leone and Liberia following visits by our research team that year. We have worked with inspiring activists in both countries who were campaigning to raise awareness of the harm of FGM, lobbying for laws and government actions against the practice as well as working in communities to encourage the abandonment of this harmful practice which affects an estimated 89% of girls and women in Sierra Leone and 49% in Liberia. FGM results in the death of some girls; in May this year it was reported that a nine year old Sierra Leonean girl had died from FGM related complications. FGM also causes lifelong physical and mental health problems for survivors, increases maternal and infant mortality rates and disrupts many girls' education. Sadly work against FGM is another casualty from the Ebola outbreak.
Every year, from 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day, we mark the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. This is time for campaigners to come together to galvanize action to end violence against women and girls around the world. This year, all of us at 28 Too Many want to support those working against FGM and other forms of gender based violence in West Africa who are now also having to deal with the world's worst ever Ebola outbreak.
A cruel and frightening virus, Ebola is having a devastating impact on Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. These are beautiful countries with diverse and resilient populations, abundant natural resources and they are full of creativity and potential. They are also still recovering from the civil wars that engulfed Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s so they have been greatly challenged by the Ebola outbreak.
As 28 Too Many prepares our research report for Liberia for publication in December, we are only just beginning to understand the impact of Ebola. As well as the many fatalities, the already weak infrastructure in Liberia has not been able to cope, particularly in the health sector where workers are amongst those most at risk from the virus. According to a survey by the World Bank nearly half of all Liberians who were employed when the Ebola outbreak began are no longer working. It said many workers have been told to stay at home or have lost their jobs, while markets have been forced to shut. A World Bank economist said the Ebola outbreak was expected to cost the region about $3-4bn (£1.9-2.5bn).
Of particular interest to those of us concerned about FGM, officially Sande activities, the female secret societies where FGM is part of the initiation ceremonies, have been suspended under a state of emergency mandate at the end of September to concentrate resources on ending Ebola. However, communicating and enforcing the suspension is problematic and there are reports that FGM is continuing in some areas. There is also concern about what will happen when Ebola is contained and people resume normal activities. Will there be a massive increase in FGM?
In Sierra Leone, we heard from one partner that all 14 districts are affected with Ebola and that the first district affected has 'left many families without bread winners and potential family relatives'. Another partner, Pastor 'Patrick' writes that the 'Country has been brought to its heels at a time when education, economy, health, employment and agriculture are already challenged'.
A third partner states all non-Ebola activities have ceased in Sierra Leone so the good anti-FGM work of organisations such as MEA and others practising 'education instead of cutting', may have ceased. One of the members of the forum against harmful traditional practices (HTPs) is lost after becoming infected volunteering at an Ebola treatment centre. She is one of 40 nurses to die in treating the more than 1,100 Sierra Leoneans who have died since the epidemic started. I fear that others who have been leading anti-FGM work, and who often put the needs of others above their own, will have perished over recent weeks.
28 Too Many are working to ensure our reports on FGM in Liberia and Sierra Leone are available to the governments and all those who will be working to rebuild post-Ebola. This should be a time to ensure anti-FGM initiatives are embedded in the health and education sectors as part of a wider programme tackling all forms of gender based violence. This will help Liberia and Sierra Leone not only recover from devastation of Ebola but move towards a future where all members of society can fulfil their potential and contribute to the successful development of their country.
Over the coming weeks and months we will continue to work with partners in country and in the diaspora communities to raise awareness and funds to combat Ebola and ensure support is available to help the recovery from this outbreak. Last month I spoke of our research on FGM at the EducAid event in London, alongside the Project Director and a survivor. This led to £8,000 being raised for EducAid's work in Sierra Leone. The 28 Too Many team will attend and support many other events during the 16 Days of Activism as well as launching our report on FGM in Liberia on Human Rights Day, 10th December. What will you do to show solidarity with the people of West Africa fighting to end gender based violence and also fighting Ebola?
Ann-Marie Wilson founded 28 Too Many in 2010, a charity working to end FGM and protect future generations of girls. Please visit www.28toomany.com for more information.