In West Africa, the spread of Ebola has reached epidemic proportions and scientists, doctors and governments are scrambling to try and reduce the spread of this deadly disease. However, many communities have not been educated about what they as citizens can do to help combat the disease, until now. In the West Point slum of Monrovia, Liberia, a girls group is knocking on doors and singing songs to alert residents about Ebola and how to prevent the spread of the disease. This simple act is empowering for these girls and could be life-saving for their community and country.
West Point, Liberia is one of the poorest and most dangerous slums in the capital of Monrovia. Violence is rampant and lack of proper sanitation leaves the community at risk of contracting and spreading Ebola. Moreover, violence against women has put many girls and women in fear of going out in public, let alone becoming public figures. The girls of A-LIFE are combating that fear and stepping out to help educate their communities. A-LIFE stands for, Adolescents Leading an Intense Fight Against Ebola, and it was started in by UNICEF in 2012, initially to help teach girls about how to protect themselves against sexual violence. However, since Ebola is now a top concern within the country, the girls started learning about the disease and what they could do to protect themselves. Liberia has some of the highest rates of sexual and gender-based violence in the world. Empowering girls with educational tools is not only beneficial for their community, it could also help change the way girls are perceived in the country. There is poor sanitation within West Point and people are not accustomed to properly cleaning themselves. So, the girls of A-LIFE are going door to door, singing songs and alerting people to the spread of Ebola and providing information about how be more sanitary. These girls are using their voice to connect with these citizens and make sure they know about the disease and what they can do to prevent it.
Recently, the World Health Organization reported that of the 10,141 cases and 4,922 deaths from Ebola so far, more than half are in Liberia. Initially, the government of Liberia was criticized for not handling the outbreak of Ebola within the country very well. There was a looting spree in one of the quarantine centers in Monrovia, and people stole blankets, mattresses and other things that could have been infected with the disease. The looters were reported screaming, “there’s no ebola,” after they ransacked the center, which caused many unaccounted people to flee while possibility contracting and spreading the disease. This threat of spreading Ebola made officials impulsive to do something quickly. The government responded with a military quarantine of West Point and had guards prevent anyone from leaving or entering. This resulted in violence and many argued that Liberia’s enforced quarantine was not helping reduce the spread of the disease. Only 10-days after the quarantine was initiated, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf lifted the quarantine in response to the clashes between the military and residents, and although people are allowed to move freely within West Point, there is still an enforced curfew from 9pm to 6am.
The distrust Liberians have in the government is what makes the girls of A-LIFE so powerful. They are members of the community, coming out and talking to their neighbors about the dangers of the disease. They are not armed and they use songs and posters to communicate with as many people as they can. They are using information in creative ways to bring public awareness about Ebola and showing skeptics in the community that Ebola is real.
“I feel good educating people about Ebola and helping them see how they can prevent themselves from getting it,” said Jessica Neufville, a 16-year old member of A-LIFE.
The girls have visited over 4,000 homes and they are seeing a change in the behavior in West Point due to their outreach. The government was not able to educate the people of West Point about the disease, so the girls used their voices to help their community understand what they could do to help themselves. It has been reported, that more people now have buckets outside of their homes to wash their hands. Although there is still much work to be done to eradicate Ebola, this grass-roots response from girls is inspiring and strengthens their image as leaders. Hopefully, this educational campaign will help change the way women are perceived within Liberia and help give these girls confidence to continue their work and become even more influential in their community and beyond.
For more information about the A-LIFE girls group in Liberia, you can go to the UNICEF facebook page to stay updated.