Thank You to Liberia's Women as Ebola Shown the Door

When Ebola struck it was our women who were hit first and worst. Women are the traditional caregivers in our communities, so when people got sick, it was the mothers, sisters, aunties and grandmothers who tended them, often paying the ultimate price.

Ebola has pulled my country apart. It has killed over 4,000 people, overwhelmed our health systems, halted business and trading and almost crippled our economy. But it's with cautious optimism that I can say Ebola is on its way out.

Yesterday Liberia released its last Ebola patient after going a week without any new cases of the virus. In most parts of the country it's been up to 38 days since a case has been recorded. When we reach 42 days we'll be officially declared Ebola free. Everyone has done their part to turn the tide on what has been the biggest health threat in the history of our country. But its Liberia's courageous women - the mothers, wives and daughters - who have led the charge and what better moment to thank them than International Women's Day.

When Ebola struck it was our women who were hit first and worst. Women are the traditional caregivers in our communities, so when people got sick, it was the mothers, sisters, aunties and grandmothers who tended them, often paying the ultimate price. Childbirth, already challenging, became an increasingly dangerous event, as hospitals closed across the country and fear around bodily fluids, meant women were often left alone to give birth.

I will never forget the day my friend called me to say she had seen a woman giving birth by the side of the road, just one mile from our neighbourhood. This was at the height of the Ebola epidemic and her baby died. I remember thinking 'this is not the Liberia I know.'

Women living in poverty in Liberia have always been the most prone to vulnerability. In a culture where women are not traditionally given the power to make decisions and often have challenges accessing resources like food, healthcare and education, it's no surprise that they were worst affected by the epidemic.

Few expected that their leadership would be instrumental in stamping Ebola out of large areas of the country. But they were and continue to be a force to be reckoned with.

When the Ebola epidemic broke, women's groups in every community sprang into action. Women from Parents and Teachers Associations, groups of women farmers and rural women's associations were among the first to start educating their communities about the risks Ebola posed and how to protect families from getting it.

ActionAid has worked with women's groups at a community level for nearly a decade and it was these same women we called upon to help with the emergency response. The women we'd trained in public speaking, who previously were lobbying on issues like the right to education and personal safety in the city, used those same skills to run Ebola public health campaigns in their local communities, going door to door, speaking on the radio and running hand washing and sanitation demonstrations in public places like the market or town centre.

Add to that the women running local organisations, who stepped up and out of their usual practice to tackle Ebola head on. We worked with the Public Health Initiative, run by Joyce, a nurse and public health professional, who was instrumental in helping us translate World Health Organisation information on Ebola into local languages people could understand and trust. She helped us develop our entire public health campaign at a time when fear and misinformation threatened to undermine the entire public health effort.

We also supported Brenda, a mother with a full time job, who when her children were pulled out of school due to the Ebola crisis, spearheaded a campaign to get education supplies to the nation's children, to help them study at home. Today Brenda's initiative has reached more than 5,000 children and she's now organising community education coaches to help kids get back to school.

Gloria, a hairdresser and singer, contacted us with an idea to record a song of hope. After recording it with local artists, it's become a central part of our public health campaign, literally encouraging people to sing ways to protect themselves from Ebola.

And I can't forget Dehconte, an Ebola survivor, who after recovering from the terrifying ordeal of contracting Ebola, went back to the care centre to look after orphans who were sick and alone.

Ebola proved that despite preconceptions, our women can lead their communities and fight the things that threaten them and their families. We're hopeful that this leadership will help tackle other issues in Liberia, including equal access to education, fair pay and job opportunities and tackling violence against women and girls like rape and domestic abuse.

Liberia's women helped show Ebola the door. Ebola has not stepped through that door yet, but when it does, I'm sure it will be Liberia's women who give it the final push.

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