If Ebola returns, it is the women who will hold the power to keep their communities safe

Women’s groups are in a better position to persuade locals to adapt cultural practices to the reality of this deadly disease

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After new cases of Ebola were identified last week in Liberia, my experience of visiting countries worst hit by last year’s epidemic tells me one thing: women’s engagement is essential in preventing a second Ebola crisis.

As one medical anthropologist responding to the crisis told me: “Ebola is a fire; women are the water”. Women hold the power to keep their communities safe. They are trusted within their communities and are able to educate towns and villages about the importance of hygiene and how to look after the sick and deceased safely far more sensitively than medical experts.

The Ebola crisis has demonstrated the necessity of working with communities to prevent a public health emergency – something which was seriously lacking at the beginning of the last Ebola outbreak and led to its rapid spread.

Communities need to be able to take control of the situation and fast. The UN Mission for Liberia, for example, disseminated vital information through local radio in 17 different languages. One local community leader said: “At first, there was confusion - we didn’t know what Ebola was, what to do. We didn’t know where to start; there were dead bodies in all our houses; rumours about witchcraft. Then we organised ourselves, educated other community members about hand washing, touching, and how to handle the sick and the dead.”

But in Guinea, it was another story. With deep-rooted distrust in the authorities after a long period of civil upheaval, and bleak messaging about Ebola, communities were unable to provide the right care to those infected with the disease. Even after thousands of deaths, families didn’t understand the need to bring their relatives to local health centres if they showed symptoms of the disease.

Where community links are poor, countries remain at a disadvantage. Here women play the vital role. Women’s groups are in a much better position to persuade locals to adapt long-held traditional and cultural practices to the reality of this deadly disease. During the last Ebola outbreak, funeral and burial customs contributed to virus transmission, yet culturally sensitive messages and community engagement were not prioritised.

For some time it was hoped that the Ebola crisis was over, but while the number of patients has dropped significantly, new cases are still being found in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Medical experts can inform health workers on the front line, but women’s engagement is vital in helping communities to change their beliefs, behaviours and customs to keep them safe.