Women in Ebola-ravaged Liberia are facing high rates of sexual violence, reveals a new research report by child rights organization Plan International, which describes the current situation in West Africa as a “humanitarian catastrophe”.
The report, titled “Young Lives on Lockdown: The impact of Ebola on children and communities in Liberia“, shows that sexual exploitation is an increasing risk for girls and women left vulnerable after losing their parents or partners to Ebola. Various factors, such as separation (temporary or permanent) from immediate family members and/or caregivers, rising poverty rates, and limited or no access to education are all compounding the situation, the report said.
“The impact of emergencies on girls is well-known – as the primary care givers, it is often girls who suffer and lose out most during a crisis like this, and girls are always the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse,” Nigel Chapman, CEO of Plan International, said in a statement.
Plan International commissioned the report due to a lack of empirical research investigating the impact of the Ebola outbreak beyond the direct impact of the virus on people’s health, in particular for children, young women and families. The final report will investigate wider consequences in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, and is expected to be released later this year.
This interim report details the main findings of the research in Liberia and suggests priorities for action to help children and communities to begin to recover. The findings are based on interviews with more than 740 individuals, families, and community leaders from 20 urban and rural sites across Liberia. They confirm anecdotal reports from the region, which have suggested that women and girls are facing unique vulnerabilities that put them at high risk for sexual violence, prostitution and exploitation, and teenage pregnancy.
Sexual violence among Ebola widows
In some areas, the report found, men are harassing female Ebola survivors for sex despite the risk of infection. If women do not consent, the men turn to rape, the interviewees said. Doctors advise Ebola survivors to abstain from sex or use condoms to avoid infecting others for at least three months. But according to the women interviewed for the report, men are still harassing them for sex.
Because many women have lost their husbands and other male family members to Ebola, men may view them as vulnerable targets for sexual violence, the report said. It described two women — Mary and Ariana (not their real names) — who lost their husbands to Ebola, and have both been drugged by men and were victims of attempted rape.
“We are being harassed every day,” said Ariana. “Men see us as vulnerable and think because our husbands are not here any more, they can do whatever they want.”
School closures put young girls at risk of prostitution, teen pregnancy
With many schools in the country closed due to fears of spreading the virus further, mothers expressed concerns that their teenage girls may become pregnant. In many instances, teenage pregnancy appears to be linked to an increase in prostitution among teen girls, some of whom are now supporting entire families after the loss of one or both parents.
“My children are not even in school. I am greatly worried about the girls. Some will soon involve themselves in teenage pregnancy or prostitution,” said one mother interviewed for the research.
“Our children are out selling in the community, helping their family to get food,” said another community member. “Some of the younger girls will soon start prostitution, because we can’t control the children if we can’t provide for them.”
Even children are expressing concern for the welfare of other young people, with one child observing that “some children are serving as breadwinners in some homes.” As a result, the child said, “teenage
pregnancy is on the increase.”
Impact on educational opportunities for girls
Interviews with young women and girls revealed that many of them had taken on the responsibilities of a parent who had been lost to Ebola. There are great concerns, the report said, that these girls will never return to complete their education, putting them at higher risk of exploitation in the future.
One young girl in the town of Ganta told the interviewer, “I am used to being cared for as a child, but I am caring for my young siblings and even for my father, as a mother, since I lost my mother to Ebola.”
Commenting on the new report, Plan Liberia Bomi County Program Manager, Alphan Kabba, called the treatment of women “inhumane,” noting that the agency is scaling up its operations to give more psychosocial support to Ebola survivors, particularly girls and women.
He also emphasized the importance of educating young women about their rights and providing safe spaces for women and girls to report violence. “We are responding to this emergency by building more capacity in this area, but we need more financial and human resources,” he added.
Sexual violence, exploitation also a problem in Sierra Leone
Other recent findings suggest that these problems are widespread across Ebola-ravaged West Africa. Humanist Watch Salone, a rights group, has observed an increase in gender-based violence in eastern Sierra Leone, an area hit harshly by the epidemic since July. The Sexual Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) Crime Unit of the Justice Ministry in Sierra Leone has also expressed concern about the startling incidence of rape, particularly among young girls. And in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone, nurses have noted an increase in teenage pregnancies.
“We are expecting to see a surge of gender-based violence and exploitation and abuse in the coming months,” Matthew Dalling, UNICEF’s head of child protection in Sierra Leone, recently told AFP. Dalling also noted that it is “logical” to assume that school closures have contributed to the teenage pregnancy rate, adding that even prior to the outbreak, 38 percent of women in Sierra Leone became pregnant before age 18.
Dalling pointed out that transactional sex — exchanging sex for a favor or goods — also could be driving up teen pregnancy. Increased incidence of transactional sex is thought to be tied to harsh living conditions that are worsened by the Ebola outbreak.