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Program participants receive health education at the Birava Health Center

How can women prepare and protect their communities from Ebola?

On July 18, the World Health Organization declared that the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The announcement resulted from the diagnosis and death of a man in Goma, a city of two million people that lies across a frequently traveled lake from Bukavu — the city where the women we serve live. 

Map showing the spread of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Ebola devastates communities. The 2014 West Africa outbreak was the most widespread, with 11,325 deaths. Surviving the disease is a coin flip, where compounding conflict, poor infrastructure and little to no access to health facilities or resources only skews the odds toward fatality.  

But it’s more than disease or death: Most of all, Ebola breeds distrust, breaking down the connections that would make communities resilient. 

The cost of being caretakers 

As with conflict, women often shoulder the burden of disease. More than 60 percent of the probable and confirmed cases of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are women. As the expected caretakers for their families and communities, women end up most exposed to the virus, susceptible to infection – and other threats: Caretakers are responsible for getting supplies and water, critical to survival and cleaning to prevent the spread of the virus. Women often take these miles-long trips alone, becoming vulnerable to gender-based violence.  

The violence women face springs from gender inequality, which like many things in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, worsens with the existing conflict. We work with women to address and overcome its widespread effects, such as malnutrition and poor health outcomes.  

Women receive vocational training to make soap
Women receive vocational training to make soap

How deep-rooted distrust chokes health efforts 

Conflict provides cover for corruption, wherever in the world it strikes. In the DRC, many of these poor health outcomes can be traced to corruption and mismanaged resources by government officials, who pocketed the money for themselves instead of investing in better roads and health centers. Now the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a shortage of health centers, which are spread far apart and severely lack the resources to treat people in such an outbreak.  

This history of disastrous health policy planted a distrust of authority and health officials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Within the context of conflict, that distrust of outsiders and authority grows into a distrust of health workers who hope to help them, including doubts about whether the outbreak is real. Outsiders receive blame for bringing the disease, and health responders are attacked. This blossoms into distrust of anyone who could be touched by the disease, eroding social and economic structures.  

Difficult roads and a lake isolate the city. But the very thing that protects Bukavu now will destroy it by cutting off resources and access to medical aid if we don’t invest in prevention and containment to minimize Ebola’s damage by fostering trust and confidence within our communities. 

Strengthening and preparing the communities 

Women for Women International works at the critical intersection of women and conflict, where we believe we can help prevent Ebola from reaching the women we serve—and make a difference should Ebola ever reach Bukavu.  

Our on-the-ground team who teach women come from the communities we serve. They know this country because they grew up here. And the community sees that our team shares their culture, their worries and that our team cares about them and these women. Our team is full of experts on their home, their people, their shared culture — and the community trusts them. 

A classroom in Birava
A classroom in Birava. Photo: Ryan Carter

We are well-positioned to help Bukavu invest in preparedness by sharing knowledge about the devastating effects of Ebola, how to prevent its spread, and how to contain it because we already meet regularly with women to teach them about health and hygiene.   

People turn to women – caretakers – to be trusted experts on health. They can lead the charge to educate Bukavu about disease prevention.  

Right now, we’re working closely with our team on-the-ground to understand exactly what they and their community need at this critical point. We hope to train women on preventing Ebola and recognizing symptoms to create an early warning system. As part of prevention, we would provide washing kits that include water, chlorine, and soap together with materials to detect high body temperatures. 

We believe we have a chance to do this right, and that none of us can do it alone. Stopping an outbreak means coming together, earning the trust of locals and women, and supporting them before it happens. 

You can help us prepare the women of Bukavu to prevent the spread of Ebola. Donate today to make a life-saving difference.