As Ebola cases and related deaths continue to rise and with the Ugandan president recently issuing strict directives including curfew and movement restrictions in the high risk districts, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is calling for the protection of women and girls throughout the response. Currently, up to 60 cases, 23 confirmed deaths and 20 probable Ebola related deaths have been reported.

Several organizations including the IRC have launched interventions in response to the outbreak in collaboration with the Ministry of Health. Evidence from several studies including a rapid assessment conducted by the IRC in North Kivu region, DRC, during the Ebola outbreak in 2018 showed that as primary caretakers of the sick and elderly, women were more exposed to the disease. This results in more than half of Ebola infections occurring among women. 

Furthermore, due to the increased use of water for handwashing and other prevention activities, women and girls who in many instances face the burden of fetching water were more frequently traveling long distances to collect water where they may be at increased risk of sexual violence and harassment.

Elijah Okeyo, IRC Uganda Country Director said,

“Even without an outbreak or crisis, women and girls are invariably vulnerable to physical, emotional, and sexual harassment or violence. This is because of the ingrained pre-existing gender norms, practices and inequalities in families and communities. This Ebola outbreak will inevitably exacerbate the negative effects of these inequalities. This was seen during the 2014 – 2016 outbreak in West Africa where women and girls were disproportionately affected, leading to both an increase in sexual and domestic violence. The IRC has for a long time delivered women and girls centered programs during crises across all our areas of operation. We will continue to do so during this Ebola outbreak in collaboration with the Uganda Ministry of Health by delivering integrated health programs providing both direct health services and Gender Based Violence (GBV) related services. This comprehensive package of services will be provided at all the 34 IRC-supported health facilities and further GBV-specific services will be available at the 26 IRC women support centers in the six refugee settlements we serve.

“The IRC will also work with community structures such as the Village Health Teams (VHTs) and through IRC protection and response officers to extend services to hard to reach areas and households with limited access to health centers or women support centers. These too will provide GBV response services and identify at risk women and girls for further support.”

The IRC has extensive experience in Ebola virus infection prevention and control activities. IRC responded to the 2019 outbreak in Uganda as well as several outbreaks since 2018 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The IRC works on women’s and girls’ protection, and integrating Ebola-related protection concerns in areas where the IRC supports primary health care services. The IRC also worked  to contain the 2014-2016 West Africa outbreak in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The IRC began programming in 1998 in northern Uganda in response to mass displacement wrought by the Lord's Resistance Army. Since then, the IRC has expanded to provide critical services for refugees and vulnerable Ugandans throughout the country. The IRC started supporting refugees and vulnerable individuals in Kampala in 2012. As of 2019, the IRC entered the Tooro region to support refugees while also providing epidemic preparedness and response services throughout the region. In addition to emergency support, the IRC also invests in long-term stability for refugees and Ugandans through programs like immunization, family planning, legal services, women's empowerment, education, and livelihoods. More recently, IRC has been involved in supporting Afghan evacuees in Uganda.