Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Sierra Leone: "Why should it be a crime to volunteer on the Safe and Dignified Burial Team?"

Before the outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in Sierra Leone, it was a taboo in most parts of the country for young people, especially those of child bearing age, to witness the washing and preparation of corpses for burial. In line with tradition, women prepared female corpses for burial and men would prepare male bodies. However, as the death toll from Ebola escalated and the majority of burial teams were composed of only men, such a provision could not be made for women.

Seeking to preserve the dignity of their deceased loved ones, some families objected to the all-male teams attending to a female corpse. Or, burial teams would arrive in a community to find that the deceased had already been washed and dressed. Such interaction with a potentially contagious body will have resulted in new chains of transmission. To counter this, the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society specifically recruited women to join its Safe and Dignified Burial teams. There are now more than 30 female volunteers embedded into these teams across the country.

Despite their heroic contributions, these courageous women, along with their male counterparts, have frequently been ostracized and stigmatized by their communities, and even loved ones.

Mariatu Kargbo shares her experiences as a member of the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society's Safe and Dignified Burial team, and talks about what motivates her to overcome these social challenges.

Mariatu Kargbo, 38, is married with five children. She became the second female volunteer for the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society's Safe and Dignified Burial (SDB) team serving the Western Rural Area.

"It is a taboo in my tribe for women within child bearing age to witness or wash dead bodies. This often lingers in my mind because I am still within the age of being a child bearer and I want to have another child," says Mariatu.

"It is not easy. Ebola is new in our country, it is contiguous and risky. But if you are self-disciplined and go strictly according to the standard operational procedures, you will never contract it." Mariatu can speak confidently based on her experience of collecting bodies. Sadly this confidence is not shared by her relatives. "All my friends and most of my family members are afraid to come closer to me, they refuse to eat the food I prepare, and some traders in my community don't sell goods to me because I am part of the SDB team." Mariatu poses the question, "Why should it be a crime to be a SDB volunteer?"

Wednesday 8 July 2015


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