Several NGOs presented claims in the city of Beni, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), that health care workers are asking women to perform sexual favors in exchange for Ebola treatment and services, the Guardian reports. The NGOs shared research gathered through focus groups.
Gender-based violence has increased since the DRC’s second-deadliest outbreak of the virus started in August. To prevent further exploitation, the health ministry asked people to report any exchanges of Ebola prevention or vaccines for money on Thursday. They also warned women applying for Ebola response jobs to only meet with official recruiters, to avoid being tricked into trading sex for employment.
Focus group participants said they were worried about an increase in stigma and violence toward women. Women are disproportionately impacted by the DRC’s latest outbreak, making up 60% of new cases. Women, especially those living in poverty, are thought to be the most affected by the virus because they tend to care for those who are infected and travel looking for food and work, which spreads the disease. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) presented its preliminary research based on 30 focus groups and found some women are being blamed for spreading the virus and are being quarantined during their periods as a result.
The current #Ebola outbreak in the north-east of #DRC has disproportionately affected women in some of the cities and towns. To face this challenge, local women have taken a leadership role in explaining the disease, and learning how to stop its spread https://t.co/h4XCZ6dWZ8pic.twitter.com/JbHMjXmwqj— ISARIC (@ISARIC1) January 31, 2019
Trina Helderman, senior health and nutrition adviser for the organization Medair’s global emergency response team told the Guardian that, given DRC’s history of violence and exploitation of women and girls, abuse should’ve been anticipated and stopped sooner.
“Humanitarian actors should have been more prepared to put safety measures in place to prevent this from happening,” she said.
The concern over the exploitation of women for Ebola treatment coincides with the skepticism of health care workers in the country. The DRC is currently involved in a civil war, leading many people to distrust government workers and foreigners. Violent militias have attacked health care workers treating Ebola patients, making it more difficult to stop the disease from spreading. Some people don’t believe the virus is real and are convinced it’s a money-making scheme or a political ploy, according to Eva Erlach, of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Since August, there have been 811 Ebola cases and 510 deaths as a result of the virus. In January, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement advising that Ebola could soon spread to neighboring countries Uganda, Rwanda, and South Sudan. A WHO spokesperson said they are working to communicate to communities throughout the DRC that Ebola services are free in order to prevent women and girls from being exploited, and keep the virus from escalating any further.