“If I don’t do it, who will?”

Publié: 13 juillet 2015 9:30 CET

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.

Marion Kargbo shares her experiences and talks about her decision to almost call it quits and what motivated her to continuing fighting the fight against Ebola.

Marion Kargbo, 24, is a wife and mother of two children. She  became the first female Safe and Dignified Burial (SDB) team leader. “My reason for joining the SDB team was to serve humanity, especially after I heard several stories about the way female dead bodies were being treated.” Many communities complained that dead female bodies were not being treated with the appropriate level of respect by small or young boys who were in charge of burial. “This meant most families were not allowing their loved ones, who were females, to be taken care of by men. This was one reason for the spread of Ebola in some communities in Bo where I am working.

“Sometime it is very difficult in the field with community members especially those with strong traditions.  But the arrival of Beneficiary Communication (family liaison officer) volunteers attached to every burial team has helped a lot to salvage the problems we used to encounter when we went out to collect the corpse.

“Despite the fact that I am a team lead and should be directing the team, in order to satisfy families who would prefer to have a woman  take care of their dead, I still dress up in personal protective equipment to help prepare the dead for burial. If I don’t do it, who will?

“I love and have a very strong believe in this Red Cross slogan. I believe that Sierra Leoneans should be the ones assisting their fellow Sierra Leoneans to bury their dead loved ones. The dead cannot bury the dead. This emblem has done it. I want to thank the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society for the psychosocial support to us. At times it is not easy.

“Before I became a team leader, I had a horrible experience in Bumpeh village which was an Ebola hotspot. One afternoon we went to pick up a corpse. She was bleeding all over. I felt so bad that I told a colleague of mine that after this experience I was going to drop out of the burial team. It was such a horrible sight to see my fellow woman lying in her own pool of blood, abandoned by her relatives and friends.”

During that early period Marion never told her husband or her family that she was working as a Safe and Dignified Burial team member with the Red Cross. “In the morning I would wake up very early and leave for work so no one took notice of what I was doing.  Until one morning when we were picking up a corpse, and I was spotted by someone who knew me. That individual told my mom and my entire family. That was the beginning of my stigmatization.”

Marion’s sister came the same evening when she returned from work. “My sister’s very first statement was not her usual pleasant greeting; she said in my face that if I ever prepared food in the house she will not eat it because I am touching dead Ebola bodies. I felt bad, and the picture of the dead woman we collected at Bumpeh flashed before my eyes. I immediately asked that my children be taken away from me and I isolated myself thinking that I had contracted the virus. I started taking my temperature every hour but I noticed that I was okay. My thoughts started running towards quitting the job, but I quickly remembered my promise as a woman to help fight Ebola.

“I strongly believe in the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross to serve humanity, and I am of the strongest opinion that if women continue to support the fight against Ebola it will soon become a thing of the past. I have not regretted my service to the Red Cross as a volunteer and I will continue to serve humanity.”