If we can stop Ebola, can we stop violence against women?

Infectious DiseasesViolence against Women

Imagine a country where no one shakes hands, where there are no football matches or concerts, and where you must have your temperature taken and wash your hands every time you enter a public building.

I am writing this from Sierra Leone, a country that is gradually emerging from the horror of Ebola. Up to 6 December 2015, there have been 14,122 cases of the disease and 3,955 deaths here. More than 200 doctors and nurses have died in Sierra Leone alone; more than 500 have lost their lives across the region.

Perhaps even more serious has been the fear of Ebola. This has led to the breakdown of community relationships, a steep decline in the economy and the closure of medical facilities. As a result, countless more people have died from other preventable causes.

I am here to do an evaluation of one organisation’s role in the Ebola response. I have been meeting people who have put their own lives at risk to save others and have brought everything they have to fight this epidemic.

What do they have in common? Three characteristics stand out: courage, compassion and competency. Along with these come hard work and a deep humility. These qualities allow them to work with others, to accept the times when approaches fail, and to keep going in the face of the appalling events around them.

During the peak period, people worked more than 12 hour days, 7 days a week. Thousands of Sierra Leonean health workers and soldiers were supported by a massive international relief effort. I salute the heroes of the Ebola response.

What does that mean for ending violence against women?

Ebola has affected far fewer people than violence against women (VAW). It grabs our attention because we all feel at risk and everything happens very rapidly. VAW is much more gradual, but it affects many more people than Ebola, even in Sierra Leone.

Samuel Harbor, UNDP Deputy Country Director, said, ‘By the end of [their] life span, nearly all Sierra Leonean women will suffer from some form of sexual or gender-based violence.’ In a small study in 1998, over three-quarters of women in Sierra Leone reported either forced sex or intimate partner violence.

Do we have the same commitment to ending VAW as the workers in Sierra Leone had to ending Ebola? Are we being innovative about developing the strategies that will make a difference? How much courage, compassion and competency are we bringing to our work?

Daring greatly

Let me end with a quotation from a speech by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910. For me, this sums up the honour due to those who tackled Ebola and the challenge for those of us who aspire to end VAW (for man, read man or woman!):

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt

What is God calling you to do?

This post first appeared on Restored's blog in June 2015, and has been updated with current statistics.

Peter Grant

Peter Grant is Co-Director of Restored, a global Christian alliance with a vision of transforming relationships and ending violence against women.