Huddled together in the bedroom of their mud-brick home in rural Liberia, Marthaline Sweet’s children stare at her hungrily as she picks up her one-month-old baby.
Sweet, an Ebola survivor and mother of five, chokes back tears as she recalls contemplating an abortion after the virus killed her husband – leaving her alone to fend for their children.
“We don’t have a good home, we have no food and we must beg other people for help,” Sweet said, gazing at the railroad that runs past her village in Liberia’s central Grand Bassa County.
“We are really suffering – we are slowly dying,” said the 39-year-old, gently rocking her baby girl back and forth.
Sweet is one of thousands of women in Liberia mourning the loss of their loved ones to the world’s worst Ebola outbreak, which has infected 28,000 people and killed 11,300 in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone since December 2013.
Liberia, the hardest-hit nation with 4,800 deaths, was declared Ebola-free for a third time last month.
As the West African country begins to recover from the crisis, many women like Sweet are struggling to face a future without their husbands or fathers – the main breadwinners in their families.
About half of Liberia’s 6,000 Ebola survivors are women. Besides financial hardships, many must also endure rejection from their friends, families and communities.
Survivor and social worker Vivian Kekula dropped out of university and stopped going to work because her peers and colleagues refused to talk to her after she caught the virus.
“People stopped drawing water from our well, and didn’t let their children come near me or my house,” Kekula said.
FARMERS TO ENTREPRENEURS
Recognizing the need to rebuild the Ebola-stricken lives of women across Liberia, a host of non-governmental groups have launched programs to provide vocational training and grants.
“It is not sufficient to only supply Ebola survivors with food and aid,” said Abel Thomas of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE). “We want these women to have skills that they can survive on for the rest of their lives.”
Women in Liberia tend to work in agriculture, and have traditionally been expected to collect crops and care for animals, said Jafar Eqbal from the Liberian office of BRAC, the world’s largest non-governmental development organization.
Yet more and more women have branched out in the wake of the Ebola epidemic to take on other activities – from rearing animals to selling livestock at markets, he said.
“We are getting an increasing number of success stories … many women have transformed from farmers to entrepreneurs.”
Other groups like FAWE are training women who survived or were widowed by Ebola in skills like pastry and soap-making.
“Before I had nothing, but now I make soap and sell it at the market,” said Ebola survivor Fatu Knuckles, 32, who lost nine relatives to the virus, including her father and brothers.
In addition to stigma, abuse and loss of income, the threat of violence and rape also hangs over women in Liberia, a country with one of the world’s highest rates of sexual violence, women’s rights advocates say.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf last month said the nation must enact laws to protect women and girls from violence.
“Regrettably, the inhumanity of rape is still being perpetrated … this wickedness must be brought to an end,” Sirleaf said in her annual state of the nation address.
Rape is the most frequently reported crime in Liberia, and one in four women and girls have been raped by a stranger, according to a 2013 study by the Overseas Development Institute think-tank.
There was a rise in rape, early marriages and teenage pregnancies at the height of the Ebola outbreak, and women and girls – especially widows and orphans – are now even more vulnerable to gender-based violence than before, activists say.
“Prevention and response services have been affected and poverty is increasing sexual violence, exploitation and abuse,” said Catherine Klirodotakou from Womankind Worldwide.
Pacing around her home’s makeshift kitchen, the cawing and chirping of birds audible through the smoke-stained tarpaulin roof, Sweet is forlorn as she talks about her family’s future.
“We are not receiving the kind of help people say we are getting from the government or local and international NGOs,” she said, tightly gripping the shoulders of nine-year-old Mercy.