Heeding the Call: Religious leaders in Bangladesh help communicate on COVID

Banner image: UNICEF / A religious leader disseminates COVID-19 health messages with a megaphone in a Rohingya refugee camp, Bangladesh
Heeding the Call: Religious leaders in Bangladesh help communicate on COVID
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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Mosque megaphones, traditionally used by imams to call the faithful to prayer, are now serving an extra purpose in Bangladesh in the battle against COVID-19. UNICEF and local partner organisations have mobilised religious leaders – including in the Rohingya refugee camps – to play an important role disseminating essential public health information to local communities. 

Imams play a central role in refugee camps and communities across Bangladesh: supported by results from knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and practices surveys, these trusted figures are widely considered as a vital source of information. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, religious leaders continue to help spread important messages, such as social cohesion and peace building, but with an additional focus on hygiene and infection prevention. This includes handwashing with soap, social distancing, use of masks and how the Koran can help people cope with the difficulties of lockdown.

 More on the Forum Network: Trust Truly Local Leadership: To protect children during and after the pandemic, support the grassroots organisations that know them best by John Hecklinger, President and CEO, Global Fund for Children

Bangladesh Betar and Radio Naf, both UNICEF partners, have also developed a toolkit containing key infection-prevention messages for imams to disseminate among their millions followers in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangla, English and Burmese. 

UNICEF and its partners have enhanced community awareness activities in the refugee camps to ensure that Rohingya children and their families are better informed about preventing COVID-19.

Read Combatting COVID-19’s effect on children on our COVID-19 Hub

Peter Ouko from Youth Safety Awareness Initiative and Iryn Were from Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) model social distancing for children in Nairobi’s Mathare informal settlement, next to a mobile hand-washing station. 

Credit: Youth Safety Awareness Initiative

Tackling rumours and falsehoods in relation to the virus is an important part of UNICEF’s Communication for Development (C4D) response, because misinformation can have devastating consequences where news and internet access are restricted. 

C4D plays a vital role in the overall UNICEF’s mission reaching women and children by designing social behavioural communication strategies, both with a strong evidence base and an understanding of communities’ needs and priorties. It is a cross-sectoral component that supports the health, nutrition, education, child protection and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) thematic areas.

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C4D goes beyond messaging: it is a principle that supports programme implementation and is grounded in terms of a human-centric and do-no-harm approach. Keeping communities, women and children first is vital for C4D. Positive, community-facing communication strategies and materials, designed and developed in a culturally sensitive manner and in local languages, are paramount to engaging affected populations to change behaviours and practices. 

Additionally, UNICEF and its partners have trained more than 300 religious leaders in the camps who are now disseminating prevention messages about COVID-19 in the Rohingya language. They use posters and key messages to explain COVID-19 and to debunk myths associated with the virus.

Specific information, education and communuication materials, animated videos and community arts projects are also designed to encourage young children and youth to be the “agents of change”. The adolescent radio groups in the camps have engaged heavily  with young people and religious ledaers in discussions on live radio. Children who were going to learning centres pick up key life-saving behaviours through play-way techinques and cartoons featuring Meena, a character created by UNICEF to educate youth on gender, health and social inequality.

 

UNICEF has built the capacities of religious leaders throughout the response so that they are now considered essential to engage with communities in their local language. A major achievement has been the increased role of the Hafiza, female religious leaders who have completely memorised the Koran. By bringing COVID discussions to women in their own households, as well as holding female-only prayer sessions, they are a critical source of life-saving advice: 

“Being a female religious leader has given me the confidence and the ability to speak to the women from our communities, who already have so many day-to-day challenges. Now with COVID, and so many restrictions in place, I feel it is my responsibility to reach out to them".

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