How Africa’s religious leaders are changing sexual health narrative

Various types of contraceptives. Religious leaders are increasingly championing for family planning in developing countries. [File, Standard]
Religious leaders have shunned sexual and reproductive health discussions at the pulpit for decades – a situation that is changing.  

This is as 45 per cent of health services in Sub-Saharan Africa are provided by faith-based organisations.

Anglican Provinces of Africa General Secretary Reverend Canon Grace Kaiso says the turnabout is from the conviction that all families – regardless of their religious beliefs – are entitled to lead healthy lives.

“An absence of basic family planning services deprives millions of people of this fundamental right every year,” said Reverend Kaiso who turned the blame on governments, civil society and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) for the exclusion of the church from pro-family planning campaigns.

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Reverend Kaiso noted that faith leaders wield greater influence and should be used to guide, inspire and lead others. 

“As respected, trusted and well-known members of their communities, faith leaders are influential in guiding cultural and social norms and practices,” he said

He was speaking during a convention in Nairobi that brought together interfaith leaders and faith-based organisations from across Africa.

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The meet under the ‘RightByHer’ campaign was organised by Faith to Action Network and sought to strengthen the involvement of faith organisations and their leadership in the welfare of all their followers across Africa.

It recognises the viable capacities faith organisations bring to the development processes and taps into their expertise and influence.

Hindu, Islam, Bahai faiths and the various Christian denominations such as Catholic, Anglican and Evangelicals were represented.

At the event that included 60 faith leaders from 30 organisations, the clergy shared advocacy successes and interventions they use in their work.

In Kenya for instance, National Independent Churches of Africa (NICA) has contributed to the development of a sex and sexuality booklet with reference from the Bible and the Qur’an for use in Sunday schools and madrasas.

NICA archbishop Reverend Stephen Marete said they have also developed a syllabus around sexuality education for the new Competency Based Curriculum (CBC).

He called on the Education cabinet secretary George Magoha to allow them to provide properly trained chaplains to handle the lessons in schools.

“The aim of developing this curriculum is to help manage the rising number of teenage pregnancies dropout cases in schools,” he said.

The access to family planning in Kenya is, however, still hindering the gains made by advocacy. The Health Service Delivery Indicator report (HSDIR) showed that a fifth of the family planning clients was paying for services that were supposed to be free in public facilities.

The government is planning to include the provision of contraceptives in the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) by 2020.

Across Kenya’s border in Uganda, the SDA Church Union uses pastoral letters to address societal challenges faced by her members and the community at large.

The letters give direction on what to believe and do regarding contemporary issues. Five of those such letters providing guidance on gender-based violence, teenage pregnancies, maternal health, small family size, and HIV have released been released.

Ghana

The Muslim Family Counselling Society of Ghana (MFCS) has pushed for the amendment of inclusion of clinical family planning methods into the National Health Insurance Scheme.

Women within six piloted districts in Ghana can access family planning services free of charge.

MFCS is advocating for enrolment of the scheme through-out Ghana especially in rural areas, where poverty levels are high.

“We train and empower Imams and chiefs to encourage the people to take up family planning services, for it is not a western idea, as thought, but a religious requirement,” said MFCS director Mohammed Bun Bida.

In Ethiopia, laws do not hinder anyone from accessing sexual and reproductive health services, but the culture is quite restrictive.

Young and unmarried people fear asking for family planning methods for the community discriminates against such persons.

Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology trains faith leaders on gender, health and theology, maternal and child health issues.

The training aims at changing the attitude of faith leaders over the issue.

“The institution understands that faith leaders can be a catalyst for gender equality, proper family planning, and maternal health as they are a direct link to the community,” said Maternal and Child Health Project Officer Wosen Berhand.

In Zimbabwe, teenage pregnancy, which is a major contributor to maternal and child mortality remains rampant in some parts of the country owing to poor information.

GRACE Foundation, a faith-based organisation, teaches family planning on the streets.

The Evangelical Association of Malawi is also taking the lead in campaigning for population growth management.

The church takes family planning messages to pulpits with supportive scriptures from the bible to demystify the misconception that family planning disrupts procreation.

Faith to Action Network’s Europe director Mattias Brucker believes that these strategies will boost interfaith commitment towards family planning advocacy as they are actionable.

There is a wide agreement among global experts that people who have access to family planning information, services and supplies are likelier to complete their education, live more prosperous lives and raise healthier children.

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ContraceptivesFamily planningReligious leaders