Through WCI, Liberian Women Play Key Role in Combatting Spread of Ebola

Andrea Van Grinsven, for GPA -- As the Ebola crisis continues to overwhelm West Africa, Women’s Campaign International’s (WCI) work in Liberia is helping to curb the spread of the outbreak. The Philadelphia-based organization’s commitment to strengthening Liberian women’s advocacy skills over the past five years has prepared the communities for emergency situations like the epidemic.

Grassroots campaigns like WCI’s have become increasingly important as hospitals are overwhelmed and villages are quarantined, with the burden of care coming back to the affected communities. According to Cathy Zurbach, WCI's Vice President, the trust WCI has established with the communities over the past five years is making a difference in their staying calm, maximizing limited resources and combating the initial response of fear and anger. WCI is at work distributing materials from the World Health Organization and the Ministry of Health, providing medical and sanitation supplies and working to reach the remote communities.

“We can help stop the spread with simple, straightforward information,” said Zurbach.

Which is exactly what happened in Lofa County, the first county affected by Ebola when the disease came into Liberia in March. When information failed to make its way to remote areas, women from WCI’s National Rural Women Program went to the health clinic and demanded that the healthcare workers distribute information about Ebola. They identified 120 women, particularly midwives and cross-border traders, who were trained by the health professionals and could carry the message to other counties. This replaced the circulation of rumors surrounding the disease in rural areas with facts.

The campaign was not directed by WCI, but Executive Director and former Liberia Country Director Nancy Wallace highlights it as a direct outcome of WCI’s work in Liberia.

“They just knew what was needed, used the skills that they developed through our trainings and just action,” she said. “That’s what we want globally. That’s what we hope all of our programs do.”

Wallace established WCI’s Liberian office five years ago. It has since transitioned to completely local management, with the exception of WCI’s ex-pat staff member, Monica Gadkari, who goes back and forth between Liberia and Philadelphia. Since the Ebola outbreak, WCI has evacuated Ms. Gadkari.

WCI’s multiple programs in Liberia work to build skills that cover all of WCI’s models: political leadership, conflict mitigation, economic empowerment and civic participation. The Liberian campaign began as a USAID program originally slated to run for three years, but expanded as more needs and funding were identified. According to Zurbach, WCI launches its programs with a goal to build the capacity of the local people so that the program will multiply through them.

WCI’s efforts to engage and empower women are increasingly necessary as women are disproportionately affected by the outbreak. The Ministry of Health in Liberia estimated that 75 percent of Ebola victims have been women. This is unsurprising, given that women are the caretakers of the sick and prepare the dead for burial, putting them on the front lines of dealing with the infectious disease that spreads through contact with blood and bodily fluids. To decrease the risk of exposure that women and immediate family members who are usually tasked with the job face, WCI initiatives support efforts to care for the sick in a safe way as a community.

Though many WCI programs are concentrated in Africa and the Middle East, there are also programs making an impact domestically. In Philadelphia, WCI’s G.A.L.S. program holds the same trainings that WCI holds abroad for high school girls. Around 30 girls from three to four high schools in the Philadelphia area join WCI for a series of six Saturdays during the second half of the school year. In the morning, the girls work on capacity building and in the afternoon break into teams to advocate for issues of their choice. The program is approaching its sixth year.

“What we tried to do is take our international curricula and bring them home to do something for Philadelphia,” Zurbach explained.

Looking toward the future, Zurbach and Wallace also spoke of potentially adding a program to engage the diaspora of immigrants in Philadelphia.

“Women are, we believe, the best people to advocate for themselves and their families,” Zurbach said. “They’re certainly the most disadvantaged as they tend not to have a say at the decision-making table.”

Photo courtesy of WCI.