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Liberia's Ebola Widows Face Grim Future as World's Deadliest Outbreak Subsides

A wave of Ebola infections crippled Liberia's economy. As it wanes a year later, it is clear that women who have lost husbands have been particularly hard hit.

by Kayla Ruble
Mar 18 2015, 3:15pm

Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News

In the span of a single week at the end of August, Makavi Dulleh lost 19 of her relatives to the Ebola virus. It overtook her family as suddenly as it had engulfed Liberia — as one member was carted away to a hospital, it seemed another would instantly fall sick.

Ebola, which spreads through direct contact and exchange of bodily fluids, entered the family through an uncle who was a surgeon at a hospital in Voinjama, the capital of Lofa County, where the hemorrhagic fever first crossed into Liberia from Guinea a year ago. Dulleh watched her parents, siblings, and husband all contract the virus, until eventually she herself became ill and was taken to the county's only Ebola treatment center during the outbreak, a hospital an hour's drive away in Foya.

After 30 days in the treatment center, Dulleh was discharged from the facility with her healthy baby boy Famoya by her side. It was then that healthcare workers explained to her that only she and her brother had survived — the other relatives who had been taken to the hospital had all died.

She is one of the many women across the country who lost a husband during the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history.

Related: Ebola's Youngest Victims: Liberian Children Face New Health Challenges as Outbreak Subsides

Makavi Dulleh and her son Famoya.

"When they told me my husband passed away, [I thought] I got nobody to support [me], who will help me? I ain't got no help," Dulleh recounted to VICE News on a recent afternoon. Famoya hung on his mother's hip as she sold goods from a small market table outside of the family home, which she now occupies with her brother Maliki and her two young sons.

"It's very hard, because this small table cannot give me nothing. In one day it can give me 200 [US$3], I go buy rice and it leaves [no money] in my hand," Dulleh continued. "I can feel bad, my [mom] or my husband helped me…. He helped me with the children."

The country's widows are burdened by emotional and psychological trauma on top of the outbreak's devastating economic impact.

VICE News heard similar stories from various other Liberian women whose husbands died of Ebola, losing their life partner and often the family's primary, or only, breadwinner. The outbreak crippled the country's economy; as it wanes a year later, it is clear that widowed mothers have been particularly hard hit. Many now have serious difficulty with feeding and supporting their children.

Bedee Baysah, who works with the International Rescue Committee's women's protection and empowerment program in Lofa County, told VICE News that her organization is learning about more and more widows each day, such that she couldn't provide an official estimate. The outbreak abruptly threw many women into the position of having to provide for their children.

"Women in Liberia and in Lofa, most of them are dependent on their husbands or other men to be able to make a living," she explained, noting that education rates for women in Lofa are especially low. "They were not expecting their husbands to die."

Though the World Bank does not have figures on widows specifically, it has highlighted data gathered from Sierra Leone regarding the damage the outbreak has had on the small-scale self-employment sector, which provides the bulk of female jobs in Sierra Leone and Liberia. The data suggests that women have been harder hit economically.

A cellphone survey on unemployment conducted recently by the World Bank also found that 60 percent of women in Liberia were not working since the outbreak, compared with 40 percent of men.

Related: Ebola Survivors Face Stigma and Harsh Punishment for Having Sex in Sierra Leone

Makavi Dulleh sits with Famoya outside of her home in Lofa County, where she sells cooking items. She lost her husband during the Ebola outbreak and now survives on approximately $3 a day.

Until the unprecedented scale of this Ebola outbreak, women had been considered its main victims. Healthcare workers and home caregivers providing support to patients were thought to be more likely to contract the virus, and in many cases these individuals are women.

But the contagion that infected more than 24,000 people and claimed more than 10,000 lives — mostly in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia — did not discriminate, infecting almost the same number of men as women. In Liberia, 2,897 men tested positive for Ebola along with 2,845 women, most of whom were between the ages of 15 to 44 — the prime years for childbearing and family raising. Men working as burial workers, doctors, and participants in traditional funeral practices were vulnerable.

These funeral rituals helped fuel the initial and particularly brutal spread of the virus in West Africa. Many local and religious practices dictate the washing and touching of dead bodies, and Ebola is highly contagious after a person dies. This is how the hemorrhagic fever made its way through the village of Barkedu in Lofa, where it killed 150 people.

Ebola initially arrived in the village through the son of a local imam. After his death, dozens of residents washed and prepared his body for a proper burial, sparking a rapid chain of transmission. This is how the virus infected the husband of Barkedu resident Fatu Kanneh, killing him and 36 other relatives last July.

Kanneh's brother-in-law also brought the illness with him when he traveled to the village from Monrovia in mid-July. After he died, the men in the family bathed his body using traditional methods. Word about the outbreak had already begun to circulate, but the villagers had not yet come to terms with the reality or scope of the virus.

After taking her husband across the border to a traditional healer in Guinea for treatment — a common recourse at the time — Kanneh cared for him and slept in the same bed as him before he finally agreed to seek treatment in Foya and ultimately died. Kanneh did not contract the virus herself. She lost three of her children, but another three survived, along with many sister-in-laws and young nieces and nephews.

"Now in the yard, [just] women with the children are in the yard, all the men died," she told VICE News, describing the village quarter in which the family's remaining members reside. Kanneh said the area now feels empty.

"It's very hard in my life, I always think of it. Each time I think I always feel bad, I can't be happy," she continued, while acknowledging how fortunate she was to not become ill. "I was so blessed. I was sleeping with him, doing everything with him, and I never got sick."

Though she fended off Ebola, her husband's passing has created new challenges. In addition to her surviving three children, she is also now the sole caretaker of six other young children that her husband had with other women. Kanneh did not have full-time employment prior to the outbreak, but has since been hired as a cleaner at Barkedu's local health clinic.

"I have to accept it because if I don't do it, [there is] nothing else for me to feed my children," she said.

But in Liberia an employed man is not only responsible for his wife and children, he often provides for siblings, parents, and neighbors, meaning the economic impact extends beyond immediate family.

In the small village of Salmodu Town, just off the road between Barkedu and Voinjama, a female tribal elder named Mayama Jabeteh sat in a traditional headwrap under the shade of a tree near her home describing the loss she experienced during the outbreak. One of her sons contracted the virus in Monrovia before traveling back to Salmodu Town, and it spread to her other children, grandchildren, and many neighbors, but most of its victims were men.

"[There are] no men, no men, all of them [are gone], the children depended on all of them," she said with an expression of worry, looking on at some of her young grandchildren she has cared for since Ebola killed their parents.

Jabeteh pointed out other houses in the vicinity where the men have died. "I don't know what to do," she said. "[There's] no food, no clothes to wear."

Related: 'We Can't Be Complacent and Think Everything Is Over': The War Against Ebola Is at a Critical Hour

In Salmodu Town, like much of Lofa County, most villagers make their livelihoods from crops harvested on small family farms out in the bush. The bulk of it is used to meet daily food needs while the rest is sold in local markets. The planting season begins in the spring, but when last year's Ebola outbreak took hold in June and July the rest of the farming process in the village came to a halt. 

Between that interruption and the high number of deaths, most of the crops planted last year were left to rot when harvest time came in October. Jabateh's village has since become reliant on occasional rice deliveries from the United Nations World Food Program.

"All that food, all that farm spoiled," she recalled. Because of the loss of many relatives who used to help her with the farm, both male and female, Jabateh has not been able to start planting this season. The same is true of many other families in the village.

Jabeteh said that the confusion and depression she was experiencing made it difficult to focus on work. "My head, all in my head [I'm] thinking, worrying," she said.

With many of the women burdened by emotional and psychological trauma on top of the outbreak's devastating economic impact, Baysah said that it is important to help these women recover. Therapeutic support is key, she noted, as well as teaching them skills that can help them support their families instead of relying on food rations.

"To help women, it's not just giving them something," she said. "If anyone wants to help those women to move on, [give] them the strength to move on with their life."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB