This website is best viewed with CSS and JavaScript enabled.

Faith Leaders' Pivotal Role in Ebola Response Was Overlooked

Posted on: February 12, 2015 1:22 PM
Related Categories: Christian Aid, Ebola, Sierra Leone, West Africa

[Christian Aid] As Ebola infection rates drop in Sierra Leone, Christian relief agencies are urging global and national institutions, donors and policy makers to ensure Sierra Leone’s faith leaders are given a “pivotal” role in their post-Ebola recovery plans.

Christian Aid, CAFOD and Tearfund believe global institutions such as the World Health Organisation and the United Nations have not engaged sufficiently with Christian and Muslim leaders in Sierra Leone, who they say have played a vital and often unsung role in the fight against Ebola virus.

In a statement released today, the three agencies warn that “there was a significant missed opportunity in not involving faith leaders further at the very start of the outbreak. The role of faith leaders has often been overlooked and in many cases their potential contribution to the Ebola crisis is still not being fully realised.”

The Ebola virus has caused nearly 3,000 deaths and infected over 8,000 people in Sierra Leone. With infection rates now falling, Christian Aid, CAFOD and Tearfund want policy makers in the UK, European Union, Sierra Leone, World Bank, United Nations and World Health Organisation to outline clear strategies for making religious leaders “a pivotal part” of Ebola recovery and prevention programmes.

Christian Aid Country Manager for Sierra Leone Jeanne Kamara says: “Since the outbreak began, faith leaders nationwide have continuously used their unique position of trust and influence within communities to work tirelessly to educate thousands of people about Ebola in order to help stop the spread of the virus. They have offered comfort and solace to the sick, the suffering and the bereaved.

“In a country characterised by a deep sense of faith, religious leaders have been a source of support at a time of fear, confusion, loss, suffering, financial hardship and trauma. We hope the international community acknowledges and validates their vital role in the response to Sierra Leone’s outbreak and integrates them fully in future plans to help rebuild the country.”

The joint statement from Christian Aid, CAFOD and Tearfund says: “As Ebola recovery plans are developed, it is of the utmost importance that faith leaders are fully involved and represented in high-level decision making processes at an international, regional and country level. Faith leaders should be involved in the drafting process.”

This call was reiterated at a parliamentary event hosted today by Christian Aid, CAFOD and Tearfund. Held at the House of Commons, it saw two Sierra Leonean clergy – the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Freetown the Rt Rev Edward Thamba Charles and the Director of Caritas in Freetown the Rev Fr Peter Conteh – addressing MPs, Peers and policy makers on how religious groups have engaged with the health crisis.

In Sierra Leone, faith leaders have been active at the heart of the community since the outbreak started. Many pastors, priests and imams have worked hard to persuade people to change the unsafe burial practices and deep-rooted cultural traditions that boosted the spread of the virus.

Agencies such as Christian Aid have been working on the ground through local faith-based groups since the outbreak began. Christian Aid partner the Methodist Church of Sierra Leone used its existing HIV and community health networks to speak out against the destructive stigmatisation of Ebola survivors. It also worked with Christian Aid to deliver food to quarantined homes and to train over 50 ministers to promote Ebola prevention measures to their congregations.

Christian Aid partners have also worked in eight Sierra Leone districts to train up to 500 religious leaders in psycho-social counselling, using funds raised by the British public though the Disasters Emergency Committee Ebola Crisis Appeal.

In the joint briefing, sent to MPs, Lords and UK NGOs, Christian Aid, CAFOD and Tearfund point out that faith leaders can meet the “strong need for skilled personnel” to counsel Ebola survivors, the bereaved and other affected individuals in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

“Given their influence in communities and the potential harm of wrong messages, well-trained faith leaders… can be a crucial part of the countries’ recovery and healing. Faith leaders and faith-based organisations must be allocated dedicated funding for training and related materials, and on-going mentoring, particularly in counselling.”

The three agencies also want policy makers to use their Ebola response evaluations to consider whether faith leaders were utilised from very outset of the outbreak, and to see what lessons must be learned. They have also invited research bodies and donors to investigate the “unique” role of faith leaders in creating behavioural change during the outbreak.