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In partnership with The Challenge Initiative (TCI), we are proud to share stories that illustrate the positive impact that family planning has on women and low-income communities around the world. Published monthly, these stories aim to capture the perspectives of women and their communities that benefit from TCI’s efforts and the dedicated individuals working to empower women with access to family planning.
Generating Renewed Faith for Family Planning in Africa
How TCI and Religious Leaders are Partnering to Spread the Word about Reproductive Health
In African villages with limited access to digital channels and communication technology, word of mouth tends to be the greatest source of information. As residents turn to each other for the latest news, stories can rapidly spread throughout an entire population.
Such direct engagement also upholds a common spiritual bond within African communities, where religion plays a vital role in residents' daily routines, behaviors and beliefs. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that more than 60 percent of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa attend church on a weekly basis. Additionally, the study projects that nearly 27 percent of the world's Muslim population will reside in sub-Saharan Africa by 2060 – up from 16 percent in 2015.
Given their great influence, religious leaders would appear to have a natural role in helping educate their communities about family planning. Young women especially are at greater risk when it comes to unplanned marriage and childbirth, and may benefit from learning and gaining support from leaders they trust.
However, religious leaders often struggle with how to best discuss reproductive health with their congregations. After all, the doctrine of certain religions discourages family planning tactics such as birth control and contraceptives, making it difficult for leaders to speak about a subject that may be contradictory or receive pushback. Additionally, some may consider themselves less prepared or capable than local health and community figures to guide the conversation.
"Growing up, family planning was not an issue that was brought to the table, and we relied on what we were told," said Nsubuga Bruhan, an imam and local council official in the Buikwe District (Kikoma) of Uganda. "I previously thought that discussions around family planning and contraception were best held in the privacy of a clinic, or in the bedroom behind closed doors."
For TCI and its global reproductive health allies, the mission of partnering with local faith leaders to normalize and realign the family planning conversation remains incredibly valuable. With greater direction around how to delicately but effectively engage religious communities, TCI and its partners can leverage a powerful channel to influence reproductive health perceptions, attitudes and decisions.
"I like being in contact with religious leaders, as having them on board allows us to talk about family planning and reach our targets much differently than we could previously," said Fatimata Sow, Communications and Programs Manager for IntraHealth International (TCI's Francophone West Africa healthcare partner). "It has been a challenge at times to get them comfortable talking about family planning, but we understand that this is an important program that can improve the lives of young women and girls throughout Africa."
A Message Beyond Belief
Can family planning and religion coexist? While some faiths and followers are devout in their beliefs, the reproductive health conversation does not have to be a strict "either/or" situation.
TCI and its partners emphasize productive messaging that aligns with – rather than challenges – belief systems. For instance, instead of trying to sway followers whose faith disallows birth control and contraceptives, the group drives the conversation towards family planning and birth spacing.
"What's important to understand is that we are not convincing families to have fewer children, but rather taking a more strategic approach to how and when they're having children," added Fatimata. "Religious leaders can direct those they serve to resources that extend the conversation without questioning their core beliefs, leading to a more open and honest exchange of information. As discussions around sexual and reproductive health change and go further, so will local communities' trust and response."
"I tell my congregants that God gives us wisdom and power to make decisions that are beneficial to them," added Nsubuga. "God has given us the responsibility to judge our capacity and balance the love. I tell them to reflect on their families, and (recognize that) it's not a sin to produce fewer children than they can manage."
Inspiring a Common Spirit
As with any unfamiliar subject, many religious leaders are hesitant to embrace change or risk creating divide within the congregation. However, by generating a culture of support, TCI is building bridges to empower these leaders to help each other and those who trust and turn to them.
For example, TCI and its community partners host several annual coaching and training programs for faith leaders in Francophone West Africa that provide both fundamental reproductive health information and guidance for introducing concepts to the villages they serve. These workshops not only allow attendees to learn from facilitators and each other, but also generate discussion on how to align family planning messaging with religious texts and practices. Within each session, TCI and its partners are careful to strike a balance between knowledge sharing and advocacy enablement, ensuring that religious leaders have the resources and mindset to deliver messages in a culturally and spiritually acceptable fashion.
"My door is always open to anyone who wants information about family planning," said Nsubuga. "I have leaflets and know how to counter misinformation. We need to teach our people and communities their responsibilities, and (ensure they) understand both the benefits of using family planning and the dangers of not using it."