Sierra Leone Is Free From Ebola, Women Still In Danger

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The entire country of Sierra Leone is celebrating today — The Associated Press reports that the country has finally been declared free of the threat of Ebola. The small West African nation, with a population of just under 6 million, was one of the countries hardest hit in the Ebola epidemic that began in late 2013. The disease has killed nearly 4,000 people in Sierra Leone.

It has now been 42 days since the last confirmed patient was declared Ebola-free, with no new cases presented. The 42-day period is double the amount of time that it takes for symptoms of the Ebola virus to present themselves. The country will now enter a 90-day period of heightened surveillance to be sure that no new cases emerge. Procedures on the safe handling of the dead remain in effect to prevent new outbreaks.

While the people of Sierra Leone celebrated, the country isn’t entirely out of the woods. Neighboring Liberia declared themselves Ebola-free in May, only to have a few cases reappear. And Guinea, the last country still struggling with the epidemic, is right across the border.

The Ebola epidemic has been one of the worst outbreaks of disease in recent memory. The epidemic, which swept across West Africa, killed more than 11,000 people and left devastation behind. Women have been hit particularly hard by the disease, as the traditional feminine role of caretaker meant that they were most often the ones caring for the sick, thereby putting them at higher risk of contracting the disease.

The aftereffects seems to have been disproportionately hard on women, as well. At the height of the spread of the virus, schools and marketplaces closed, leaving girls without education and parents without livelihoods. Broadly reports on the stigma which still surrounds the disease, prompting some survivors to display government certification that they are Ebola-free. Hospitals are still considered centers of disease, making pregnant women and mothers of sick children reluctant to access them in times of need.

Women are also more vulnerable to sexual violence as a result of the epidemic, the United Nations reports. The UNDP released a report in late October, which found that the Ebola crisis put women and girls at “heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence,” due in part to changing routines which put young girls, at home because of closed schools, in the path of predatory older men. Additionally, the lack of economic security caused by the death of multiple family members, including the family breadwinner, had the result of forcing many vulnerable young girls into prostitution to survive. In turn, the report found that teen pregnancy increased as well, in some communities at a rate of 65%.

This is especially troubling. Sierra Leone, as a conservative country, has a policy of not allowing pregnant teen girls to attend school lest they set a “bad example” to their peers, thus preventing them from the education that they will need to improve their situation. Quartz reports that young women suspected of being pregnant are subjected to humiliating exams in which teachers or school nurses publicly feel their breasts and belly for signs of pregnancy.

Sierra Leone has certainly achieved a victory, as their president, Ernest Bai Koroma, is quick to advertise. "We have prevailed over an evil virus. We persevered and we have overcome. We must not let down our guard," he was quoted by The Associated Press. But for the women of Sierra Leone and their next generation, that victory seems somehow hollow.
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