Liberia: Meet the girls beating Ebola (Daily Beast)

| November 14, 2014

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photo credit: UNICEF Liberia/2014/Griggers

photo credit: UNICEF Liberia/2014/Griggers

Two hundred girls weave in and out of alleyways in the seaside slum of West Point, Liberia. Their voices rise in song: “Believe it, people, Ebola can kill. Let’s come together to stop Ebola.”

The girls, along with a few boys, are aged between 16 and 19. Together, they make up Adolescents Leading an Intense Fight Against Ebola, or A-LIFE. Through their own efforts, the group has already reached more than 4,000 homes in West Point, a neighbourhood in Monrovia.

In 2012, UNICEF started an educational group for girls in West Point, a neighbourhood known for its dangers even in a country with one of the highest rates of sexual and gender-based violence in the world. The girls were taught how to protect themselves from sexual violence.

With the outbreak of Ebola, the girls also learned how to protect themselves from this new danger. This gave them something the rest of their community lacked − knowledge and understanding of the virus, and how people are infected.

The girls’ efforts have proved a vital counterpoint to the atmosphere in the city. As the Ebola epidemic swept through the region, Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, ordered a 21-day quarantine of the area. West Point residents’ fear and mistrust of health workers escalated. So when the quarantine was lifted after only 10 days, some concluded that Ebola was not real.

More than half of the Ebola cases and half of the 5,000 deaths attributed to Ebola have occurred in Liberia, according to the World Health Organization, or WHO. But WHO believes that there may be two-and-a-half times as many cases as the official figures indicate.

Sheldon Yett is UNICEF’s representative in Liberia. He says: “[The girls] took what they learned and built on it. They embraced everybody, went to everywhere they could find, and discovered new ways to get information across.”

Carrying educational pamphlets and hand sanitizer, some girls go out into the community three or four days a week; others commit themselves to seven days a week. Schools in Liberia are closed indefinitely, so the girls are making good use of their spare time.

Jessica Neufville is an enthusiastic 16-year-old member of A-LIFE. She says, “I feel good educating people about Ebola and helping them see how they can prevent themselves from getting it.” Ms. Neufville declares, “I could be afraid, but being afraid would stop me from going out to help people.”

Most West Point residents live in shacks with rusted tin roofs. Many lack clean water and electricity. There are less than a dozen toilets to serve more than 50,000 people, who must cope daily with malaria and lethal cases of diarrhoea.

According to UNICEF, A-LIFE’s visits to more than 4,000 homes in West Point have brought changes that are essential to curbing the epidemic. Mr. Yett says: “We see at every street corner in West Point, in front of every shop, people have buckets to wash their hands. We’ve seen a real behaviour change in these communities, and that’s amazing.”

He adds, “Because [the girls] come from that community, they’re known by that community. People understand where these girls are coming from, and people believe their messages.”

To read the full article on which this story was based, Meet the Liberian girls beating Ebola, go to: