Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Faith-Based Organizations Believe in Family Planning

July 19, 2012

Faith-based organizations (FBOs) were well represented at last week’s London Summit on Family Planning thanks to the summit organizers, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the British government. Ten faith leaders participated and, like most of the delegates, they thought the summit was a smashing success by securing financial commitments to reach an additional 120 million women and girls with voluntary family planning services.

Gary Darmstadt, head of the foundation’s Family Health Division, made clear his belief that FBOs are “critical to family planning” in a post-summit blog, pointing out that FBOs “provide up to 40 percent of the total healthcare in many countries in Africa.” It may be even higher than that in some countries.

“The only way the ambitious goals in child health and family planning can be reached is to mobilize the faith community along with other stakeholders, an ‘all hands-on-deck’ approach,” said Ray Martin, executive director of Christian Connections for International Health (CCIH) . “Often the hardest-to-reach populations in rural areas and the urban poor are the ones most likely to be reachable by FBOs.”

Yet no FBO representative was given a speaking role. A very large number of government and United Nations officials spoke, as well as an entire panel for the private sector (which I was glad to see). I heard only a few references to the role of FBOs in family planning and they were all negative, focusing on those religious leaders who oppose family planning. There was no acknowledgment that FBOs could play a constructive role despite the presence of 10 of those leaders at the summit.

Indeed, FBO leaders at the summit acknowledge resistance to family planning in some religious quarters, and believe they can help neutralize it. “Many people think that religious leaders are against family planning. Of course, some are, but many, probably most, are not,” Martin told the Financial Times before the summit (PDF). “Many faith based organizations, like CCIH, are finding ways to promote family planning that show respect for the religious beliefs and sensitivities of the communities that they work in.”

Just before the event, I had written what FBOs hoped to get out of the summit. One of the goals was “to reduce the tendency for much of the global development community to undervalue and overlook the major role played by FBOs in international development.”

Martin contrasted the attitude towards FBOs at the London Summit with the recent Child Survival Call to Action in Washington, DC, June 14-15.

“At the Child Survival Summit with a thousand public health leaders from around the world, speaker after speaker mentioned the essential participation of FBOs,” said Martin. “Speakers who mentioned FBOs included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebilius, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake and actor Ben Affleck. And the program included an entire panel of FBO leaders.”

Faith leaders were struck and surprised by the less-than-enthusiastic reaction at the family planning summit, but, rather than be discouraged, expressed a desire to roll up their sleeves and get to work at a consultation on faith and family planning held the next day in London and attended by 41 people —both secular and faith people, Christians and Muslims. Representatives of the Gates Foundation, the British Department for International Development, the United Nations Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other donors were present and all spoke about the importance of FBOs and how their agencies already work with FBOs.

Professor Andrew Tomkins, of University College London who works with FBOS and identifies as a person of faith, summed up the negative comments at the summit: "Faith groups are still regarded as the problem, not the solution. In family planning, we're still demons and not deliverers. We’re not very good in making our case and talking about our work.”

“FBOs need to step up their messaging and confront those who disparage them,” said one participant.

A communications break-out group identified two broad audiences that need to be reached better: 1) Faith leaders who are anti-family planning or "agnostic" on the issue; and 2) Members of the “secular reproductive health community” who do not appreciate  -- or know about -- the pro-family planning FBOs they could tap into to increase health impact.

Several speakers proposed creative ways of winning over anti-family planning people of faith.

Tomkins showed how specific Bible verses could be used to promote family planning. He cited research from Malawi that shows that although religious affiliation has no effect on use of family planning, church leaders’ views certainly do.

 “We should educate more pastors,” said Samuel Mwenda, general secretary of the Christian Health Association of Kenya, which is already training pastors and church leaders. “They are very receptive to education. Once empowered, they can be very effective.”

In Mali, the Health Policy Project of the Futures Group uses Islamic religious leaders to promote family planning.

John Guillebaud, Professor of Family Planning and Reproductive Health, University College London, coined perhaps the most memorable phrase of the day in his presentation “Praise the Lord for Contraceptives” a sentiment that these FBOs would like to see invoked much more in the future.

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