The ability to engage communities – from school children to society elders – to change harmful attitudes and behaviours, is critical to the success or failure of our efforts to tackle the Ebola outbreak. That was the message from Plan International CEO Nigel Chapman, speaking at an event focusing on the role secret societies have played in the crisis in Sierra Leone.
Social mobilisation has been a key pillar of Plan’s response to the epidemic, which has swept through the Republics of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone over the past year.
The massive spread of the disease was in part inadvertently fuelled by cultural and traditional practices, such as burial rituals performed by secret societies. Although these practices might have no negative consequences in normal time, they have had “catastrophic results” during this health crisis, said Chapman.
“The leaders of the secret societies, who are the custodians of tradition and custom, wield tremendous power to effect change in their communities. Put simply, when they talk, people listen. And given that 70-85% of the population of Sierra Leone belong to these societies, their reach is huge,” he added.
His comments were echoed by Sierra Leone’s Minister for Health and Sanitation, Dr. Abu Bakarr Fofanah, who acknowledged that working with institutional actors alone is not enough – all actors need to work side by side, to raise awareness and change mentalities.
“Secret societies have played a major role the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone, for instance through traditional burial rituals. These practices, which often involve body contact, are indeed not always compatible with the challenges presented by Ebola,” he said.
“But people are afraid and often see the Government as an alien institution in which they have no trust. There is a need to understand this reality and the crucial and powerful role that secret societies play,” he added.
Such is the importance of engaging traditional leaders, Plan has partnered with the Office of the First Lady of Sierra Leone on the Ebola Resistant Behaviour Change Initiative, which targets precisely those members of society with the power to effect dramatic change.
“Raising awareness and effecting behaviour change through these channels has proven to be game-changing in the fight against Ebola,” Chapman added, pointing out that the number of new cases has plummeted since the launch of the initiative. “The ultimate goal of “zero cases” now seems to be within grasp in the not too distant future.”
Life beyond Ebola
Traditional, cultural and religious leaders can – and should – also play an important role in the longer-term development of their communities and countries post-Ebola. This is particularly true when it comes to tackling harmful practices and discrimination against women and girls, which “will not end without the consent and encouragement of community leaders”, according to Chapman.
“Let’s work with these leaders to help break down gender stereotypes and end discrimination… to end the practice which forces thousands of girls to undergo genital mutilation every year,” he said.
Ebola has proved that traditional leaders are not immune to changing or altering their practices.
“Ebola has proved that traditional leaders are not immune to changing or altering their practices. So, let’s continue to work with them over the long-term to bring about the social and economic development of their communities and countries.”
Klaus Rudischhauser, Deputy Director General at the European Commission’s International Cooperation and Development Directorate General stressed the importance of working with all stakeholders to prevent a future crisis before it occurs.
“One of the lessons that can be learned is that countries were not prepared to the great difficulties brought by the Ebola outbreak,” he said.
“There is a great work to do on preparedness and programmes have to be adapted to local realities on the ground. There is a need to make sure that health systems are prepared in order to avoid new crisis.”
To read Nigel Chapman's full speech, please click here.