Case studies

These case studies are taken from Pathfinder International’s ‘Advancing Reproductive Health through Religious Leaders and Faith-Based Organizations’. Pathfinder International partners with local governments, communities, and health systems in developing countries to remove barriers to critical sexual and reproductive health services. The case studies cover the education of and outreach to Christian and Muslim religious leaders in Egypt and Ethiopia.

Read more: Advancing Reproductive Health and Family Planning through Religious Leaders and Faith-Based Organizations

Egypt

Upper Egypt (the land on both sides of the Nile valley) is a rural area with strong religious beliefs. It is home to Coptic Christians as well as Muslims. As part of the TAHSEEN (from the Arabic phrase tahseen sihitna bi tanzeem usritna – ‘improving our health by planning our families’) project, Pathfinder has helped educate 254 male and 24 female Christian and Muslim religious leaders (including the wives of some clergy), about family planning methods, birth spacing, the risks associated with early marriage, early childbearing, and female genital cutting, the benefits of breastfeeding, antenatal, postnatal, and post abortion care, and the prevention of sexually transmitted infections. 

Pathfinder research showed that untrained religious leaders either misunderstood birth spacing, or considered it unacceptable in their religion. They believed that their role in promoting birth spacing should be limited, and some felt that men should make all family planning decisions because women are not capable of learning about it on their own. After a series of seven Pathfinder seminars, most clergy came to support birth spacing and can now cite passages of scripture in support of it. They are likely to support men’s positive involvement in family planning, but recognize that women are capable of learning about reproductive health and making decisions about family planning in conjunction with their partners. Leaders have come to accept that they can and should play a role in educating their congregations about healthy practices.

As part of their training, these leaders learned how to best communicate with youth, men, and newly married couples. They spread the message through counselling, sermons, and public meetings, bolstering their lessons with verses from scripture, including a verse in the Koran that advises women to breastfeed for two years. The religious leaders’ support has been invaluable in assuring rural communities that Pathfinder’s approach to family planning and reproductive health is consistent with their religious beliefs.

Through focus group discussions Pathfinder found that both men and women in Egypt believe that it is a man’s right to control his wife. Some men even quoted the Koran to support the view. Pathfinder worked with Muslim and Christian leaders, and an expert on Shari’a Law from Al Azhar University to develop Women and Religion, a booklet outlining women’s rights, ways to reduce gender-based violence, and promote healthy communication between spouses. 

Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s population is divided between followers of Islam and the traditional Coptic Christian Church. While the use of modern contraception among women in Egypt has reached an impressive 56.5 per cent, only 13.9 per cent of Ethiopian women of reproductive age use a modern method of birth control and on average have 3.1 children

Pathfinder felt the Ethiopian partners could benefit from a study tour to see how Egyptian religious leaders have been involved in family planning and reproductive health programs. In 2003, the TAHSEEN project in Egypt organised a visit from an eight-person Ethiopian delegation representing the Ethiopian parliament, the Muslim Development group, the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, the Orthodox Christian Development group, and Pathfinder International/Ethiopia.

Delegates realized that the Egyptian government’s commitment to family planning projects and their willingness to collaborate with religious leaders and NGOs was a fundamental factor in their success. The language used surrounding family planning issues was also found to be important. The Egyptians have found that terms such as ‘family welfare’ or ‘family health’ are more amenable to their constituents than ‘family planning.’ Egypt had more success presenting family planning as a solution to health issues, rather than an issue concerning population size.

Upon returning from Egypt, the Ethiopian delegation participated in the filming of a documentary that Pathfinder has used to promote family planning. The delegation also made a series of presentations about what they learned to the federal parliament, two local government assemblies, and two groups of religious leaders. The advocacy meetings with over 250 religious leaders in both the Tigrai and Amhara regions of Ethiopia. 

Presentations covered how family size affects household economy and family health, the impact of population size on development and the environment, and the effects of harmful traditional practices such as female genital cutting and early marriage and childbirth.

At the end of each two-day session the religious leaders developed a position statement declaring their views on the topics discussed. After much discussion and debate, the leaders agreed that:

  • With the approval of the religious hierarchy, husbands and wives should limit the number of children they have, both for the economic benefit of the family, and the environment.
  • Harmful traditional practices such as female genital cutting, marriage by abduction, early marriage, rape, and unsafe abortion are not required by the Bible or Koran, and therefore should be condemned.

One of the reasons the religious leaders were open to making these declarations was their observation that family planning and reproductive health services fit into the Egyptian culture, a culture religiously similar to their own, and that these services benefited both the health and economic situation of the country. 

The Ethiopian government’s Plan for Accelerated and Sustained Development to End Poverty reflects a significant shift in acknowledging the clear relationship between family size and poverty. Some regional governments have already allocated funds for distribution of contraceptives.