What You Still Might Not Know About the Ebola Crisis

Aparna Alankar

14,124. This is the total number of suspected, probable, and confirmed cases and deaths of the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone from March 25, 2014 to February 14, 2016 (CDC 2016). What no one is counting, however, are the equally frightening numbers of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) cases that increased both in frequency and severity during the year of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP 2014) conducted a study of SGBV in Sierra Leone during 2014. Records of SGBV cases were collected from Family Support Units (FSUs) of the local police stations and from nine victim-care centers. The total number of cases from January to December in 2014 amounted to 1,365 from the FSUs of the local police and averaged to 348 from each care center UNDP projects the actual number of cases to be even higher than the results of the study, citing two reasons for this discrepancy—conditions imposed by the outbreak which made it difficult for victims to report cases of SGBV, and the fact that in most communities, SGBV cases are resolved independently by community leaders and chiefs. However, UNDP still had sufficient data from its focus group discussions with residents across all seven districts of Sierra Leone to conclude a clear increase in SGBV in Sierra Leone during 2014. Residents reported significant increases in domestic violence, sexual harassment, abandonment/neglect, and the sexual penetration of children. Further investigation of these reports led the UNDP to find that cases of teenage pregnancy had increased up to 65% in target communities during 2014 alone.

UNDP’s findings were soon corroborated by a study published in 2015 by Plan International (PI)—in conjunction with the organizations, Save the Children, World Vision International, and United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). The four organizations interviewed over 1,100 girls and boys, ages 7 to 18, from nine districts across Sierra Leone and found that almost every child was aware of an increase in sexual violence—against females especially—in their community (PI 2015). Girls, mostly ages 15-18, voiced their fear of rape. Boys of all ages spoke of incidents that happened to their sisters and friends. Ninety-one percent (91%) of the 151 children participating in a “Yes-No-Maybe” exercise conducted as a part of the study said that they believed there were more girls their age pregnant now than in 2013, and that this increase in teenage pregnancy was a direct result of increased SGBV in their communities (PI 2015). “Yes, there is more abuse in the community now which has resulted in the increase of teenage pregnancy,” says a girl from Kailahun (PI 2015). Other children shared concerns of young girls becoming pregnant due to sexual exploitation— “because they did not understand about sex” (PI 2015). In fact, none of the children believed that the increase in SGBV and the increase in teenage pregnancy were independent of one another.

The correlation between the two trends is important because another conclusion of UNDP’s SGBV study is that the increase in SGBV during 2014 was a direct result of the outbreak of Ebola. Participants stated that economic hardships led to transactional sex, a lack of access to service for victims translated to a lack of consequences for offenders, and most significantly, precautionary measures (i.e. quarantine and the closure of schools) led to a sharp increase in domestic SGBV. In fact, children from across all seven districts of Sierra Leone who were interviewed by UNDP reported a direct correlation between quarantine, school closure, and the increase of SGBV in both their homes and communities.

Quarantine was first introduced to the districts of Kenema and Kailahun in August 2014, following a state of emergency that had been declared by the government in July. On September 19th, a three-day shutdown was imposed to limit the spread of Ebola, with pedestrians and vehicles banned from entering the streets. By September 25th, approximately one-third of Sierra Leone’s population was placed under quarantine. All households remained under quarantine until 2-21 days had passed without any symptoms (ACAPS 2015). When asked about the effects of the quarantine on their personal lives, 600 girls who were interviewed by Save the Children spoke of violent attacks and sexual assaults against girls in homes that were under quarantine (UNDP 2014). One such girl is Mariatu, who lost her father to Ebola and is now pregnant and working in the quarry with her mother and eight younger siblings. Another girl from Kailahun lost her mother, father, and younger brother to Ebola and is now in charge of her twin brother and younger sister. During the 21-day quarantine period, one of the soldiers guarding the quarantined zone broke into her home and attempted to rape her (Caroll 2015).

While these measures are reassuring, they may not be enough to prevent the disease from spreading. Soccer games are planned to be held in cities outside Rio which have higher rates of mosquito-borne viruses (Wahl 2016). Citizens who live around Rio have claimed they see no evidence of the government’s efforts. According to Luiz Claudio Nascimento, a member of Carnaval’s cleaning crew, “We don’t do special cleaning for Zika. As far as we have been told, it is not so serious” (Hinde 2016). Moreover, many citizens have expressed a lack of faith in Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, to take care of the situation since she has been accused of involvement in a bribery scandal and is facing potential impeachment. Additionally, despite the serious consequences of contracting Zika for pregnant women and their babies, the World Health Organization has not banned pregnant women from traveling to affected regions.

Schools in Sierra Leone closed prior to their scheduled summer vacations and
never reopened. Approximately 5 million children were out of school due to Ebola (Sifferlin 2014). Many children reported that the higher occurrences of teenage pregnancy were a direct result of being outside the protective environment provided by schools. “Some of our friends are raped when they go far to get water, some are drowned in the streams,” says a boy from Kailahun. “No we do not feel safe at this very moment because our friends are abused every day, some even sexually, so there are possibilities for the perpetrators to abuse us too,” says a girl from Kailahun. “Before Ebola, I concentrated on my schoolwork but now men are sexually harassing me because I am always at home,” says a girl from Bo. “As a result of Ebola, school has been closed and many girls have become pregnant,” says a girl from the Western Urban Area (PI 2015). Children across Sierra Leone faced a heightened risk of SGBV outside of the relative safety of their classrooms. The closing of bars and other socialization spots forced men into close quarters with the women and children in their homes (Yasmin 2016). Many children who were not in school served as breadwinners for their families—a situation often leading to transactional sex (PI 2015).

Money has been a major motivator when it comes to handling Zika. Suspiciously, despite past outbreaks of Zika, organizations are only now mobilizing against the disease. Since previous outbreaks have occurred in impoverished regions, a vaccine or cure for Zika was not considered a good investment. Capitalism has assigned people a monetary value, often blinding us from the fact that every life is a worthwhile investment. The World Health Organization only declared Zika an international public health emergency on February 1, 2016. This label puts the virus in the same category as Ebola, though it is not known to be as fatal (BBC 2016). The emergency signals the seriousness of the situation and offers countries who are experiencing outbreaks, such as Brazil, the tools needed to fight it (i.e. funding from governments and nonprofits around the world).

Monica Onyango, a professor of global health at Boston University, says that the increase in SGBV during the Ebola outbreak should not have come as a surprise— “Epidemics are just like a conflict situation. You have a loss of governance; you have chaos and instability; and all of that leaves women vulnerable to gender-based violence” (Yasmin 2016). However, a significant contributor to the increases of SGBV in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak was not the natural conditions created by the outbreak but the public health measures aiming to protect the population—quarantine and school closure. To this day, quarantine remains a highly controversial method in West Africa. While quarantine prevents the spread of infection and facilitates case tracing, it also fuels panic and violence. The uncomfortable question of whether ends can justify means is further complicated by the fact that there is no definitive data that can prove whether or not quarantine in West Africa is more effective than it is harmful (ACAPS 2015). In any case, the question of what else Sierra Leone could have done to curb the high rates of SGBV while still protecting its citizens from Ebola is tied to the reason for which Sierra Leone will face such a difficult time recovering from the two epidemics—the country must work to change the prevalent rape culture.

Sierra Leone forbids pregnant girls from attending school, a policy that widens the already gaping gender education gap and forces women into lower-paying occupations (DCI 2015). The English Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 is still in effect, prohibiting abortions in the face of rape and incest. Young girls involved in sexually exploitative relationships are held accountable as adult women who are responsible for their actions— “You see you are not a woman, but not a girl again, because you are doing certain things that do not belong to a child,” said an informant asked by Defense for Children International (DCI 2015). Finally, there is a continual failure to prosecute and arrest offenders in SGBV cases (Kamara
2013). Clearly, SGBV is an ongoing problem in Sierra Leone, evidenced not only by statistics—the country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with around 48% of women married before the age of 18—but also by an attitude towards the female population and SGBV that has been embedded in everyday custom and law. “Our tradition describes women as property of men, this is why we as women are considered property in our marriages with little and no rights,” says a woman from Kono (DCI 2015, UNDP 2014).

Sierra Leone’s shortcomings regarding SGBV actually played a large part in initially motivating UNDP to conduct its study of SGBV in Sierra Leone (DCI 2015). UNDP hypothesized that the collected results would be enough to begin initiatives on effective response to SGBV in Sierra Leone (UNDP 2014). It turns out that they were right. Governments are currently in the process of approving new laws that protect victims of SGBV and increase penalties for offenders. UNDP itself has partnered with UNICEF, the United Nations Population Fund, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, the Ministry of Health, the Sierra Leone Police, the Department for International Development, the International Rescue Committee, and a number of local non-governmental organizations to create a plan aiming to tackle the rise in SGBV during the Ebola crisis, titled “Ebola Recovery in Sierra Leone” (UNDP 2015). In May 2015, Defense for Children International started an initiative to implement “laws that guarantee the right to a quality education and protect girls and women from violence and abuse” (DCI 2015). In December 2015, Sierra Leone’s parliament voted in favor of a new abortion law making safe abortion legal in all cases (Ipas 2015). This is the first step the country has taken towards legal abortion in centuries.

Ebola and SGBV have brought Sierra Leone into the focus of the world. Global attention is resulting in slow but steady progress for Sierra Leone. It does make one wonder, however: is absolute crisis really necessary for change?

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