Faith Community Steps Up Its Commitment To Family Planning
By David J. Olson
NUSA DUA, BALI, Indonesia — To some, it may have been an incongruous image — twelve faith leaders, representing all the major religions of the world, standing on the stage at the closing ceremony of the International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) here.
After all, everyone knows that most religious leaders are against family planning, right? That was never true, and now it’s becoming even less true. The twelve leaders represented 85 religious leaders and representatives of faith-based organizations (FBOs) who came to Bali from 26 different countries to discuss best practices and scaling up services to help families achieve what they like to call “the healthy timing and spacing of births” during a two-day Faith Pre-Conference.
It might surprise some to know that this support is not just for natural family planning, but extends to all forms of modern contraception with the single exception of sterilization, which is not approved by all types of Islam. All other modern methods are acceptable to all the religions represented at ICFP — Buddhist, Christian, Confucian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim.
“Biblically speaking, family planning is supported because it helps provide life in its fullest,” said Dr. Tonny Tomwesigye, executive director of Uganda Protestant Medical Bureau. “If you have 100 children who are miserable, you have made the world a worse place. If you have the number of children you can successfully educate and who can enjoy good health and fulfill their potential, you are making the world a better place.”
Leaders of all these religions, including Islam, point out that there is nothing in their belief systems that raises objections to family planning.
In fact, there were many traditional Islamic leaders at the Faith Pre-Conference. I sought out one that I thought might be more conservative on such issues, Sheikh Mangala Luaba, Grand Mufti and president of the Union of Muslim Councils for East, Central and Southern Africa, making him one of the most senior Islamic leaders in sub-Saharan Africa.
He said the Quran permits two types of family planning — natural methods such as abstinence and “the scientific, modern methods involving medication. Reversible methods are allowed. Permanent methods are forbidden. Different methods are promoted, depending on the situation.”
The 85 representatives hammered out their statement of commitment to family planning that was read in the closing ceremony by Rev. Cannon Grace Kaiso, general secretary of the Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa (you can see the faith community’s appearance on stage 15 minutes into this video).
The statement cited their “commitment to continuing to inform and educate our communities on family planning, especially youth and faith leaders, as is consistent with our faith values as it protects the lives and health of mothers, children and families.”
The statement also re-affirmed “our commitment to continuing to provide and support quality family planning service delivery, referrals and products to all communities.”
Dr. Douglas Huber, reproductive health specialist and co-chair of the Reproductive Health/Family Planning Working Group of Christian Connections for International Health, said that the visible and active participation of faith leaders at this conference was much greater than in the first three family conferences that started in 2009.
“We experienced a groundswell of interest and support for planning and participating in the Faith Pre-Conference and for the faith presence at the full conference, including the unique commitment statement by faith leaders at the final plenary,” said Huber. “This bodes well for new and larger partnerships with the faith community. We find this very exciting.”
That is not to say that FBOs are perfect in their implementation of family planning.
Some faith leaders freely admitted that they need to do a better job of documenting their family planning work and providing an evidence base that can be used to improve the quality of their work. However, this same point was also made about secular family planning work in the larger conference.
In terms of quality of counseling, FBOs generally lag behind facilities of other managing authorities, said Janine Barden-O’Fallon of MEASURE Evaluation, in a presentation based on a study in Haiti, Kenya and Malawi (though Haitian FBO facilities perform better than public sector facilities). Availability of FP services in FBOs, varies by country (57% offer FP services in Malawi compared to 89% in Haiti). Generally, availability in FBOs lags behind facilities of other managing authorities.
However, in her conclusion, Ms. Barden-O’Fallon said: “FBOs are well-positioned to contribute to successful family planning efforts.” Volunteerism and free choice need to be upheld in all programs, she said. Method availability and counseling are key.
Enthusiasm for FBOs to contribute more to the global family planning efforts was certainly evident among these 85 faith leaders.
“In achieving the Sustainability Development Goals, we can’t afford to sideline the FBOs,” said Karen Sichinga, executive director of Churches Health Association of Zambia. “In some African countries, we (FBOs) provide 70% of all health care. We won’t achieve the SDGs without FBOs.”
Here’s a summary of the faith community’s presence at the International Conference on Family Planning in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia on the website of Christian Connections for International Health, one of the sponsors of the Faith Pre-Conference.