By Maria Caspani
UNITED NATIONS (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Ebola epidemic in West Africa exacerbated violence against women and rolled back access to reproductive healthcare in the region, ministers from Guinea and Liberia said on Wednesday.
In Guinea, data indicates a 4.5 percent increase in cases of gender-based violence since before the epidemic including twice as many rapes, Sanaba Kaba, the country's minister of social action, women and children, said on a panel at the United Nations 59th Commission on the Status of Women.
Liberia also saw more cases of gender-based violence as a result of the outbreak, said Julia Duncan Cassell, minister of gender and development in that country.
She said some men were not respecting the recovery protocol that Ebola survivors should observe and were infecting their spouses and female partners through unprotected sex.
Sierra Leone also has seen an increase in violence against women, said panel moderator Awa Ndiaye Seck, Liberian country representative for UN Women, the agency responsible for gender equality and women's empowerment.
The death toll from West Africa's Ebola outbreak has passed 10,000, according to the latest tally released by the World Health Organization.
Guinea has suffered a setback in its fight against Ebola with a rash of new cases, while Liberia released its last patient earlier this month.
The deadly virus has put a considerable strain on reproductive health services, which are still recovering, and chipping away at health gains made before the epidemic, the ministers said.
Kaba of Guinea said that during the outbreak there was a significant drop in the number of women seeking prenatal consultations and a 7 percent to 10 percent decrease in those seeking delivery of their babies - all of which are provided free of charge in Guinea.
As Ebola raged in the region, people turned away from health clinics that they saw as places of possible infection.
At times, pregnant women who were courageous enough to go to a clinic would find that healthcare workers had fled for fear of infection, experts said.
Deliveries usually involve a large amount of bodily fluids, through which the deadly virus spreads.
WOMEN BEAR BRUNT OF EBOLA
Women have been more affected by the deadly virus than men, with an infection rate of 56 percent compared to 44 percent for men, said Ndiaye Seck of UN Women.
This is largely due to the fact that many of the health workers providing care for Ebola victims are female, and women are also most likely to look after sick relatives at home, according to the United Nation's Children Fund (UNICEF).
Women accounted for 40 percent of the total Ebola death toll in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, the three most directly affected nations, said Duncan Cassell of Liberia.
Another devastating effect of the epidemic was the economic disruption it caused, the ministers said.
The economic impact of the disease on women, who are the majority of smallholder farmers, was greatest in rural areas. There was a dramatic drop in food production due to death and sickness among farmworkers or their fear of leaving home to tend fields.
(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Lisa Anderson)