This webinar highlighted the role of religious leaders as important allies in promoting positive social norms for the reproductive health and well-being of young people and women, as well as the importance of partnerships and coalitions in building transformative community dialogue for positive change. It was jointly organized by the Passages Project (Institute for Reproductive Health, Georgetown University) and the PACE Project (Population Reference Bureau).
This blog post was originally published in French. Pour lire la version française, cliquez ici.
Peter Munene, Executive Director of Faith to Action Network, welcomed participants and shared the three objectives of the webinar:
[Courtney McLarnon-Silk, Senior Program Officer at the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University]
This discussion focused on how religious leaders and communities can support changing norms for better health outcomes. Social norms influence what we do and how we do it. They are enforced by the “reference groups” to whom we turn for guidance. In many contexts, religious leaders and communities can be our reference groups. Faith-based organizations have a wide range of health programs, but there is little evidence of the value added by their involvement. The involvement of religious leaders has been documented more frequently recently, but it is difficult to demonstrate how much positive change can be attributed to their actions. This analysis provides an opportunity for further discussion on how to engage them, empower them to promote values such as equality and equity and work with their extensive networks to transform social norms.
[Dr. Samuel Byringiro, Mwana Ukundwa, and Olivier Bizimania, Tearfund]
Masculinity, Family, and Faith (MFF) is a faith-based intervention focused on changing social norms. It engages religious leaders and communities through participatory and reflection workshops and small group discussions with newlywed couples and new parents to address underlying inequitable gender norms to reduce domestic violence and increase the use of family planning. This is an adaptation of Tearfund’s “Transforming Masculinities” intervention, originally piloted and tested in Kinshasa, DRC, in partnership with Georgetown University’s Institute for Reproductive Health and the Church of Christ in Congo, as part of the USAID-funded Passages Project.
AMU partnered with Passages through MFF to effectively address family planning with the more than one hundred churches it works within Rwanda. Although there was some initial concern about religious leaders discussing family planning, AMU was surprised to see religious leaders becoming strong advocates after the MFF workshops. After the training, two of them came to the clinic to obtain information and methods for their own use. This commitment to putting the training into practice was viewed very positively by their congregations. Religious leaders’ positive engagement with family planning made it possible for the first time to discuss the subject openly in the congregations and talk about the importance of family planning based on the obvious needs of the congregations. The COVID-19 pandemic brought into sharp relief the high incidence of domestic violence and the need for family planning to ensure that children and families are well cared for. In terms of sustainability, the religious leaders took ownership of the project and made plans with denominational leaders to continue facilitating workshops and small group discussions.
[Hadja Mariama Sow, CRSD Member, and Aly Kébé, Young Leader]
This first panel directly addressed religious leaders’ engagement in reproductive health issues and strategies for information, communication, and collaboration with communities to promote their well-being. By basing their arguments on the guidance found in religious texts, religious leaders, particularly those of the CRSD in Senegal and their peers in Guinea, Mali, and Mauritania, communicate through multimedia instruments, such as the video “Rien n’est tabou” (Nothing is taboo) and “Senegal ENGAGE: Religion and Family Health,” to reach more people. These tools also make it possible to reach a wide audience on the position of the Islamic religion, specifically on the use of modern contraception by married couples to space births and the harm caused by Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) to the health of young girls and mothers.
[Aliou Diop, President of AGD, and Awa Sedou Traoré]
The contribution of civil society in this discussion is significant. In this panel made up of civil society leaders, notably Aliou Diop, a journalist specializing in reproductive health, and Awa Sedou Traoré, their role of coordination and providing information was discussed. The AGD Association coordinates the task force established in Mauritania, which includes:
The task force identified the issues of FGM and the use of modern contraception to space births as very important in Mauritania, according to national statistics. AGD is leading the process of creating the multimedia production, “Leaders religieux et jeunes engagés pour l’abandon des mutilations génitales féminines et l’espacement des naissances,” which will help convey the key messages identified by the task force to both religious leaders and youth. Accordingly, the collaboration of women and men in the media who specialize in reproductive health is especially conducive to reaching more communities.
[Mariam Diakité, IRH Georgetown University]
This presentation focused on a new way to engage imams through the Terikunda Jékulu (TJ) social network approach to breaking down socio-normative barriers to family planning. The presentation highlighted the context of the approach, in which there is a high rate of unmet need for family planning and a low rate of use of modern contraceptive methods in West Africa, particularly in Benin and Mali. It was found that the unmet need for family planning is often linked to socio-cultural factors. For example, decisions about fertility and contraceptive use are rarely individual; rather, they are influenced by social norms. Therefore, in any intervention, it is important to target the social milieu and not just the individual. Since 2016, the TJ approach has been funded by USAID, piloted in Benin by the Institute for Reproductive Health, in partnership with Care and Plan International. Currently, this approach is being scaled up in Mali.
It is important to emphasize collaboration between young people and religious leaders, between different religious denominations, to support intergenerational communication, and to encourage the participation of traditional leaders in community dialogue. If religious leaders inform and raise awareness of the positions set forth in sacred texts on couples’ use of contraception and the practice of FGM, then traditional leaders can do the same with positive cultural practices, such as those that foster the well-being and thriving of the mother and child through birth spacing, positive masculinity in the couple’s relationship, and innovative cultural initiatives.
Sharing successful experiences among countries and different actors in the field is one of the ways to achieve changes in social norms quickly. Beyond settings such as webinars and workshops, there is a need for established, active networking between actors from different countries, and within countries, to facilitate the scaling up of high-impact practices in communities.
It would seem that there is a lack of evidence on religious leaders’ contribution to improving the lives of their communities. There are testimonies and life stories, but it is still difficult to translate these positive results into data to inform and guide policymakers, to conduct advocacy for additional resources, and to bring about change among those who remain reluctant. The data also indicate that through their participation, young people are contributing to positive change, and how they are doing so. For the work to have a lasting impact, there is a need to strengthen the dialogue between religious leaders and young people, to support young people bringing key messages to policymakers. It is also necessary to identify and support cultural practices that positively change social norms. Finally, all actors need to strengthen collaboration and communicate progress supported by evidence to influence public decisions, policies, and programs.
How can religious leaders improve young people’s access to reproductive health/family planning services (information and access to use)?
In Guinea, a group of young people has been involved in all the activities of the CRSD. They have had the opportunity to work with the Department of Health, youth, and Christian religious leaders on reproductive health/family planning issues. Based on their respective fields of expertise, these various actors provide young people with all the information they need. Religious leaders also supported this group of young people in educating their peers on the use of family planning as they begin their married life. We encourage this approach because there is often more trust among young people since they share the same problems. Finally, we wanted to involve traditional leaders in our approach. They also have relevant information that can help to improve human health. Accordingly, it is a comprehensive approach that draws on the participation of all interested parties.
Beyond the participation of religious leaders, there is another aspect to consider. While some leaders have understood the importance of using family planning for the health and well-being of mother and child, others still need to be educated. Often our actions are perceived as part of an external agenda. It is important to remove these prejudices and to bring the discourse in line with religious teachings that actually promote birth spacing. What the Islamic religion forbids is birth control. Birth spacing, however, is beneficial, and religion is for the protection of the health of mother and child. It is important that everyone understands this message to establish a relationship of trust. Once religious leaders are aware of these concepts, they will be able to fully play their role in the struggle we are waging.
We first contacted the leaders who had influence in the community to spread the message. To get their support, we shared stories of people who have experienced the consequences of the harmful practices of close pregnancies. So, they were in contact with people who have suffered and understood the harm that can result from not using family planning. It was touching. We also worked with theologians to demystify what is in the sacred texts. This helps to reduce misinterpretations and prejudices and encourages them to consider our context. On this basis, it became easier to work with religious leaders.