Women step up to join the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone

Publié: 1 décembre 2014 12:35 CET

By: Lisa Pattison, IFRC

The Red Cross safe and dignified burial teams respond to any calls reporting deaths to the 117 Ebola hotline within 24 hours, which is essential to stem other potential outbreaks.

The burial teams from the Red Cross and Ministry of Health assemble around 8:30 a.m., waiting for incoming alerts to the centralized Ebola hotline. As the alerts stream in, they shoot off in various directions in and around Freetown to collect the recently reported bodies. The two vehicle convoys, with indicators blinking, cut through the otherwise sluggish Freetown traffic to reach their destinations.

Despite the sombre nature of the team’s work, there is the recognition that their job is one of the key tools to beating the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone. “All around me, people are dying every day because of Ebola. Safe burials help to stop this,” explains 28-year-old mother of two, Fatmata Sowa who recently joined the Red Cross team, and is now one of four women integrated into the ten Red Cross burial teams working across the Western Area district.

Young men, usually students at loose ends due to the nation’s schools and universities being closed for months, make up the bulk of the burial teams. However, a growing number of women like Fatmata are joining the fight against Ebola. “I used to study but had to stop because I had no money to continue studying. I chose to volunteer because it is important and I wanted to help my country.”


Traditional burials have been identified as a source of several Ebola transmission chains. Custom dictates women wash down and dress the body, which Fatmata now does on behalf of the family, but behind a protective suit, gloves and goggles. To maintain the dignity of a person who has passed, many families actually prefer to have a female member of the Red Cross burial team prepare a female body for burial. “When families see a female team member, they feel a lot more comfortable with this form of burial. I have noticed less reluctance since we had a woman join our team in the last month. Having her dress a female body helps to give the family more dignity,” explains Red Cross beneficiary communicator, David Don.

Each team consists of two drivers, a team leader, sprayers, and a beneficiary communicator who is on hand to explain to the victim’s family and the wider community about the need to conduct a safe burial. By speaking with families, the team is able to conduct a burial which is culturally sensitive, such as shrouding a body in white linen for a Muslim burial, or knocking three times before they enter a home, to demonstrate respect and their recognition that someone has passed away.

Today’s second alert brings Fatmata’s team to a rural area outside of Freetown. The elderly body they are collecting is at the top of a hill which can only be reached on foot. The team traipses up single file knowing they must carry the body down on a stretcher in very hot and humid conditions to load it into the waiting hearse. “Sure, the protective suit we have to wear is hot. But the real difficult thing is every day seeing families mourning,” says Fatmata.

Being a member of the safe and dignified burial team is not always easy as stigma is attached to many who have been directly affected by Ebola, and to those who are working with its consequences, including some of Fatmata’s colleagues. She is among the fortunate whose family and friends accept her work. “After I finish the day, I go home, get washed and sit down and talk with my family as normal. They recognize this work is important.”

To date the Red Cross has conducted more than 1,200 safe and dignified burials in Sierra Leone. Despite the continuing rise in the death toll, Fatmata looks optimistically to an Ebola-free future. “After all this, I hope  to study computers at university. I think with this I could do well!”

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has launched a revised emergency appeal of 41 million Swiss francs to reach more than 11 million people who could be affected by the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. In total, IFRC has launched 16 Ebola operations in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, targeting 39 million people. For more details on the Red Cross regional Ebola response, visit www.ifrc.org/ebola-crisis.