Campaigners provide information on Ebola in Sierra Leone Campaigners provide information on Ebola in Sierra Leone Photo credit: UNICEF/NYHQ2014-1588/Bindra
Engaging young people in the Ebola response
by Craig Dean and Kelly Hawrylyshyn June 2015

As part of its Ebola response work in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Plan International is helping children and youth groups actively engage in prevention and response efforts, whilst also benefiting from peer support.+Children and young people are a key vulnerable group for the Ebola epidemic, as well as the largest cohorts in both countries: 42% of Sierra Leone’s population and 43% of Liberia’s are under 14. Activities are building on Plan’s prior longer-term development work on child and youth engagement and youth-led media activities, including activities supported by Plan’s Youth Advisory Panels and its Global Voice for Change project.+Plan’s Youth Advisory Panels allow the young people Plan works with to participate in its decision-making processes at community, country and international level. See Global Voice for Change is a pilot project connecting youth groups using technology they already have access to, across multiple languages and led by young people. To date Plan has connected 18 young people (nine female, nine male) between 14 and 24 years of age from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Norway. The young people are part of child and youth groups in their communities and members of broader children and youth networks in both countries. For example, 19-year-old Henry from Liberia is managing a team of 20 young people providing psychosocial support and food and non-food items in Monrovia.+‘The Young People Helping Ebola-Affected Families’, He is also a member of Liberia’s National Youth Advisory Board, which coordinates advocacy work at a national and local level on child protection, and a member of the Liberian Student Union.

One key new approach to supporting dialogue and exchanges between these young people is through the use of conference calls with the members of the Global Voice for Change youth-steering panel and through a WhatsApp network group. The young people are supported by Plan and partners’ youth engagement staff on coordination, follow-up on agreed actions and psychosocial support. Communications staff help them to develop blogs distributed on Facebook and Twitter, and a closed Facebook group has been established. The young people are given credit for internet and telephone calls on mobile phones, and in some cases mobile phones have been provided to enable young people to connect while quarantined in their homes, communities or districts.

Key activities

Activities young people have been engaged in as part of the Ebola response include:

Social mobilisation

Plan’s Ebola response programme has helped young people to participate in training provided by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists on effectively communicating messaging on Ebola risk and prevention. In Port Loko Plan supports Kids ARISE, a youth group producing radio programmes on issues facing young people. During the Ebola response Kids ARISE has produced daily and weekly radio phone-in programmes for young people and community members to raise issues and receive information. Kids ARISE also used drama and distributed information, education and communication (IEC) materials in villages and towns at the start of the response. In Liberia, young people were involved in radio and television Ebola sensitisation campaigns, complemented by youth-led outreach work.+‘Encounters During Ebola Awareness Campaign’, Young people have provided affected communities with messages of support and encouragement, health guidance, daily updates on caseloads and information on feedback mechanisms.

Assessments and distributions

Young people have also supported logistics for non-food item (NFI) distributions, contributing labour for packaging and transportation and facilitating the distribution of hand-washing NFIs to reduce further contamination. Youth in Freetown are manning checkpoints, carrying out temperature checks and monitoring hand washing, house-to-house searches for sick people and medicine distributions. Their contribution has helped speed up humanitarian efforts coordinated by local leaders, while at the same time allowing them to personally benefit from active engage-ment in response efforts, rather than as passive recipients of external distributions led by INGOs. This in turn has given them the opportunity to contribute to better targeting and more effective logistics arrangements. In Liberia, young people consulted children who had been orphaned by Ebola and street children to find out what support they needed.

Psychosocial support

The engagement and relationships established at community level and through national and regional networks allow young people to support each other through sharing experiences of the impact of the Ebola epidemic on their lives, monitoring progress in tackling Ebola and sharing messages of support. Regular conference calls have allowed the young people to develop trust and created a space to share personal experiences, fears and priorities regarding the progression of the epidemic and its impact. The peer-to-peer approach has proved particularly valuable given stringent quarantine regulations, which have limited face-to-face interaction and created a sense of loneliness, isolation and fear.+‘Feeling Afraid in Ebola Lockdown’,

Feedback mechanisms

Together with GroundTruth,+See Plan is supporting the setting up of accountability mechanisms at local, district and national levels. The young people are members of reference groups set up at the chiefdom level to provide feedback on the Ebola response, allowing them to raise issues they have identified and discussed as a group. In Moyamba radio phone-in programmes and feedback mechanisms have allowed them to raise issues such as increased teen pregnancy and early marriage with the local chief, resulting in local by-laws banning early and forced marriage.


The blogs and videos young people have developed were featured in the local news and are being disseminated globally. For example, a blog on forced marriage+‘Forced Marriage on the Rise in Time of Ebola’, reached over 780,000 people through UN Women and The Girl Effect social media, among others. The ‘Real Stories of Ebola’ video+See was used as part of an inter-agency petition to leaders attending the G20 summit in Australia to press for a greater and swifter donor commitment to the Ebola response.


One of the key challenges in facilitating this virtual engagement amongst youth in different locations has been connectivity. Weak telephone links between Sierra Leone, Liberia and Norway led to many hours of wasted time, with participants, especially in rural areas, dropping out of calls or not being heard clearly. At local level, the young people often experience difficulties with charging their mobile phones due to limited access to electricity or power cuts. The general quality of the phones available locally has also caused problems, and the project has provided mobile phones and credit (airtime and data allowances) to young reporters in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Internet connectivity was not suitable for Skype tele-conferences or sufficient to allow the young people to view the ‘Real Stories of Ebola’ video on mobile devices. Editing video content from Sierra Leone and Liberia was also a challenge given bandwidth constraints. Radio programmes and the existing partnership between the youth groups and radio stations have been the best method of disseminating and collating the views of young people at the community level.

Many of the concerns raised by young people are hard to address within the constraints of the Ebola response, particularly regarding loss of relatives and friends and overall constraints on living a ‘normal’ life. Integrating young people into feedback mechanisms allowed for greater awareness of the human challenges they faced, while peer-to-peer support has provided some form of healing, albeit clearly not addressing all the damage Ebola has caused.

Young people involved in the response often faced aggression and abuse from community members, including in the suggestion boxes of the feedback mechanism. This included being accused of bringing Ebola into their community and ‘eating’ Ebola money. At the start of the response there were instances where young people carrying out social mobilisation activities were chased away by community members and had stones thrown at them. To address this, they decided to work as a group of three or four, and conduct house-to-house campaigns accompanied by local and religious leaders. There were also difficulties in ensuring appropriate protective clothing (masks, gloves) so that the young people felt protected, while not scaring community members. Other challenges in engaging young people relate to local stipends. These may affect the return of young people to formal education as they have been an invaluable source of income for youth and their families. Efforts are required to ensure employment opportunities in the recovery phase.

Lessons learnt

Youth networks and relevant communications and media structures need to be in place before an emergency (at national, district and local levels), and Plan was able to capitalise on its prior work with youth-led media and communication to rapidly set up youth networks and radio outreach in both countries. Plan, as a member of the Communicating with Disaster-Affected Communities (CDAC) network,+The CDAC Network aims to ensure that disaster-affected communities are better able to access life-saving information and give voice to their needs. See benefited from CDAC’s support in developing the initial concept and to ensure that lessons from previous emergencies were taken into consideration.

Investment is required to ensure that young people have access to multiple forms of communication to connect with each other from local to international level. Although many young people in both countries own mobiles phones, funding made available through a DFID project allowed for the purchase of internet credit and phones. The original Global Voice for Change project aimed to connect young people using the technologies they already had access to, rather than distributing hardware. However, this was reconsidered given the exceptional Ebola situation and the quarantines put in place.

Dedicated human resources are required, with expertise in facilitating youth engagement, communications and child protection in order to effectively support youth engagement in humanitarian response. In both countries we identified local partners (such as Defence for Children International in Liberia and the Youth and Children Advocacy Network in Sierra Leone) and youth-led organisations (such as the National Youth Advisory Board in Liberia and Kids Wave in Sierra Leone), and built on existing youth engagement work. Securing an enabling environment for emergency-affected youth, particularly in a context of misinformation and lack of trust in information sources, is a key priority in building trust among young people. Furthermore, awareness of and expertise in child protection in emergencies as part of a coordinated response will help in developing appropriate operating strategies and mitigating any potential harm or violations that could exacerbate young people’s vulnerability.

Like most disaster situations, the Ebola crisis has aggravated pre-existing gender inequalities in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. Through a blog, one of the young people shared her concerns regarding the risk of early marriage and teen pregnancy. The young people have also expressed significant concerns regarding the return of students, particularly girls, to school, given that they have now engaged in business or economic activity to help meet their families’ needs. These risks need to be addressed through a holistic emergency response and long-term recovery plan.

Establishing links between the young people in the affected countries and those watching the crisis unfold via the global media allowed for greater understanding of the complexity of the emergency. Young people are aware that Ebola is more than a health crisis, and has direct implications for their day-to-day lives, well-being and future prospects. Youth engagement in the response has allowed for better understanding particularly regarding the impact of school closures, quarantines and cultural and behavioural changes. This in turn has helped young people better address these challenges, in terms of generating peer-to-peer psychosocial support and opportunities to contribute to building the resilience of their communities.

Craig Dean is Global Voice for Change Project Manager, Plan International. Kelly Hawrylyshyn is former DRR & Resilience Advisor, Plan UK.

We would like to thank the young people engaged in the Young Reporters/Global Voice for Change project, and acknowledge the support from Plan and partner staff in Sierra Leone and Liberia.