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Defence for Children Sierra Leone strengthens community mechanisms to unite against the Ebola Virus Disease

Several existing research reports indicate that children, particularly girls are more vulnerable during a crisis period. Since the outbreak of the deadly Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in Sierra Leone in May 2014, Defence for Children International (DCI) has been a frontline organisation working to provide protection for children. Several children have become infected with the EVD because of their living status in poor environments with minimal sanitation and hygiene.

Currently, about 952 children have been infected with 372 confirmed deaths (1), and 10,000 children who have been affected. As the rate of infection continues to increase, Defence for Children-Sierra Leone is concerned about how many more children will become victims before the crisis ends. A looming problem from the crisis is the indefinite closure of all schools. Since September 2014, the government had suspended the operation of all schools including universities as one of the measures to prevent the spread of the EVD. The effect on children is huge.

Sando, a girl in one of the communities that DCI-SL works in Kenema district said that:

“We are worried about our education because we have lost the only teacher that we used to have in this village to the EVD. Even when the teacher was alive, we have been asking government for more teachers but they never sent us any additional one. Now that we have lost the one we had, we wonder when will the government consider sending us a replacement even when school shall have reopened”.

Local meeting on Ebola Virus Disease, Sierra Leone.

School is not only important to children for learning but also for recreation. If protects children from increased boredom and increased likelihoods of engagement in sexual activities, as without school, it’s the only available means of fun. Due to the school closings, additional problems have surfaced, such as girls becoming pregnant. According to reports from the Family Support Unit (FSU) of the Sierra Leone Police, members of Child Welfare Committees and Children’s groups in the communities, there have been increasing rates of teenage pregnancy among schoolgirls. The FSU in Kenema has so far received and investigate 36 cases of teenage pregnancy since September 2014. While the community protection mechanisms have concentrated their attention towards the fight against EVD, they have neglected other issues like teenager pregnancy and child abuse. According to the Regional Commander of the Family Support Unit, Alhaji Senesie (2) of the Sierra Leone Police in Southern region, the FSU have received and investigated reports on over 250 cases of sexual violence against children between September and November 2014.

How has Defence for Children been contributing to address the problems?
Since EVD broke out in Kenema, DCI-SL has been front lining social mobilisation, sensitisation, registration and reintegration of affected children within the framework of the plan of the Ministry of Social Welfare Gender and Children’s Affairs, that was developed together with UNICEF and Defence for Children International to operationalize the child protection and psychosocial pillar of the National Ebola Response Centre. During the early days of the EVD, it was observed that there was huge communication gap between the government response mechanisms at district level (the then Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) now District Ebola response Centre) and the communities living with the EVD. As a result, ambulances were not coming in time to collect infected persons for admittance to treatment centres. Additionally, the EOC was not communicating with families on the state of their loved ones admitted to said centres. Furthermore, there was no system in place to return and reintegrate survivors who were facing stigma and discrimination. Hence DCI-SL and other NGOs went in and started doing social mobilisation, educating and building their confidence to organise themselves and set up their own response mechanisms by cascading the mechanisms present at district level.

The first step was to set up Ebola taskforces at chiefdom level commencing in chiefdoms and communities where the infection rates were higher. The taskforces were given training involving the EOC and the District Health Management Team (DHMT) and the MSWGCA. They were trained to carryout surveillance, contact tracing, sensitisation and monitoring implementation of bi-laws promulgated by paramount chiefs and the Ministry of Local Government. These interventions have not only increased the knowledge of people about EVD symptoms and prevention but have united them and given them optimism about curing EVD.

Emerging issues
To follow up on our interventions at the community level, DCI and Fambul Talk International under the Bridging Community Network (BCN) (3) organised a consultative workshop with civil society organisations including community based organisations and the Chiefdom Ebola Taskforces involving community leaders. The goal was to generate ideas to strengthen gains made and deal with emerging issues (new concerns) from the EDV crisis. Some of the issues that came up include the following:

Education- Schools are still closed indefinitely and parents are concerned that the longer children stay out of school the more likely the possibility for them to drop out completely. Many children can no longer return to school if they are not given support due to several constraints including loss of parents and increasing poverty level. For some schools in the villages, they have lost the only teacher that they used to have.

Health care– Since the outbreak of EVD, the government closed down health centres and private hospitals when they observed that EVD was spreading faster through health facilities that were not using protection measures. Most communities in the district are now without any health facility. As a result more people are dying from other illnesses including pregnant women due to lack of antenatal care.

Tension between some communities– There is tension between some communities as a result of isolation and stigmatization. Some communities felt stigmatized and discriminated when others isolated them.

Children– Many children have been orphaned by EVD. Though these children have been reintegrated into their extended families, there is a concern that the receiving families already had children that they could not take adequate care of due to poverty. Adding another child makes these families and all the children more vulnerable.

(1) Update Report of the Ministry of Social Welfare Gender and Children’s Affairs- 10th December 2014.
(2) In a speech at a meeting to develop child protection guidelines and code of ethics for the tourism and entertainment industry organized by DCI-SL in Bo on 10th December 2014.
(3) BCN is a newly established civil society network with the mandate of bridging communication gap between the government and the community in the fight against Ebola.

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