Plan International CEO Nigel Chapman with some of the staff at an Ebola community care center supported by the organization in Port Loko, Sierra Leone. Photo by: Plan International

Ebola is proving a stubborn opponent in Sierra Leone and Guinea, with almost a hundred new cases reported last week. Many of them arise from unsafe practices in communities whose members understandably fear the consequences of reporting new outbreaks so care for those infected themselves or after their death engage in unsafe burials.

Eradicating Ebola needs a big and final push to mobilize communities and their leaders to stop these long-established practices. So who are those of influence in Sierra Leone who need to be enlisted in what everyone hopes is the final stages of the battle against Ebola?

To answer this question, we need to understand the role of secret societies in Sierra Leone and how reaching out to them provides a critical link into communities affected by Ebola.

It is estimated that between 70 percent and 85 percent of all Sierra Leoneans belong to a “secret society” — otherwise known as friendly societies. There are many societies in the country, but four principal ones dominate, one for each of the country’s four regions. Each society is slightly different — some are for men, some for women and some are mixed. But they all have three things in common: they are very hierarchical, each society has an elected head; that hierarchy means they have very clear lines of responsibility; and what the head says happens, happens.

Created by ethnic and tribal communities, their rites, rituals and practices are not shared with others, and when one is accepted into a society, it is a sign of responsibility, discipline and trustworthiness. As the custodians of traditions and customs, “secret societies” have been playing a major role in the Ebola outbreak — both in inadvertently fueling the spread of the disease through performing traditional practices such as burial rituals, and latterly in helping to curb transmission by raising awareness and encouraging people to change the way they behave.

In short, enlisting “secret societies” and changing their attitudes is one of the key weapons to help put an end to this outbreak.

A bold initiative

Thus far, Plan International’s response to the crisis has focused on areas where there is unmet need. As part of our response, we partnered a few months ago with the office of Sia Nyama Koroma, the first lady of Sierra Leone, on an Ebola resistant behavior change initiative.

Simply put, the office of the first lady, with our support, has been working with Sierra Leone’s powerful secret societies to encourage a change in the way they conduct their burial rituals, as well as working with them to raise awareness about how to prevent Ebola.

This bold initiative is the first time ever that the secret societies have not only been brought together but also the first time they have worked toward a common goal. Secret society heads, chiefs, and traditional and religious leaders have all been engaged and become champions of major behavior change within society as a whole.

This work is having an effect. People have and are changing their behavior and many are now allowing specialist teams to safely remove and bury the victims of Ebola. This is helping slow the spread of the virus and will in time help halt it.

In time, this work with the “secret societies” may pave the way to help achieve sustainable, long-term changes in other areas, such as female genital mutilation and early child and forced marriage.

The impact of Ebola

It’s only when you see the situation on the ground — as I did recently during my trip to Sierra Leone and Guinea — that you understand the scale of this disaster and the havoc it has wreaked across communities. The wide-ranging short-term and long-term impact of Ebola is huge.

Their impact is revealed in new research published by Plan International, “Ebola: beyond a health emergency,” which highlights the multiple effects that Ebola has had on the welfare of children and families in West Africa.

The findings show that children’s development, and that of their families, is being seriously affected by the loss of already precarious health services, education, community cohesion and basic needs such as food.

Many children have been placed at risk by a breakdown in the protective environment usually provided by families and the wider community. Those who have come into contact with Ebola and survived face stigmatization. Orphans see the wider family safety net undermined because they have lost many close family members.

Crucial health services have been severely affected. Mothers and pregnant women are particularly heavily affected, with 80 percent of mothers in Sierra Leone and 40 percent of mothers in Liberia who participated in the research reporting a lack of maternal health services since the outbreak of Ebola.

Winning the fight against Ebola is both a short-term and a long-term battle. The damage Ebola has done in these fragile societies is significant and it won’t be a quick fix. But by taking a holistic view and working with communities to firstly finish the battle and then to help rebuild, donors, governments and other agencies can and must help these countries come back stronger.

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About the author

  • Nigel Chapman

    Nigel Chapman is the chief executive officer of Plan International. Prior to Plan, he held various senior positions in news and current affairs with the BBC, spanning more than 30 years. He was the director of the BBC World Service and was the first director of BBC Online. He also served as the chair of BCC World Service Trust, the service's charitable arm, which uses communications and new technologies to aid development in some of the world's poorest countries.