A Leap Of Faith

Faith leaders from around the world gathered at ICFP 2016.

NUSA DUA, INDONESIA—85 faith leaders from around the world are gathered here for the 2016 International Conference for Family Planning. The goal is that the invitees to the faith pre-conference will become more active participants in family planning in their 26 home countries and also globally, says Mona Bormet, CCIH program director and co-chair of the 2016 ICFP faith subcommittee.

The success of that goal, she adds, depends on everyone here gaining a deeper understanding of the values of the various faith communities and what family planning looks like within those values.

Faith leaders have a prominent role in this 4th ICFP—even more so than in the three previous conferences—because of increasing awareness of the vital part they play in the family planning mission.

“Faith-based organizations are often the de facto health care providers in many developing countries, providing an estimated 40% of health services in sub-Saharan Africa alone. In many nations, religious leaders are the most visible and accessible form of authority, trusted far more than governments or nonprofit organizations,” according to a recent op-ed in The Guardian by ICFP attendees Rev Canon Grace Kaiso, general secretary of the Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa, and Ahmed RA Ragab, a professor of reproductive health and vice-chairman of the Faith to Action Network.

Misconceptions and myths abound about everything from the IUD and morning-after pill to oral contraceptives. “Any person or community can be an obstacle if they don’t understand something,” Bormet says, adding that when family planning methods are defined for faith-based leaders and they learn the evidence, they often become major champions for family planning in their respective communities. “They understand it helps reduce maternal and child mortality, that it’s about birth spacing and not population control.” 

Family planning is a major priority for Islamic scholar Naimatullah Akbari, MD, MBA, MPH, whose native Afghanistan ranks highest in the world for maternal mortality. Since 2003, he has defied death threats in upholding women’s rights to access quality reproductive health information, education and services, and in working to reduce violence against women and children and improve women’s empowerment.  “It is only the blessing of Allah that I am alive,” he says, having survived a Taliban bombing of the hospital he directed in Kandahar that killed all but seven of 112 people there.

As director general of the Afghanistan Social Development and Health Organization, his vision is to establish a resource center in Kabul where religious leaders, health professionals and youth can come together as agents for change.

Among the things that needs changing fast: Although more than 92 percent of married couples in Afghanistan reported awareness of family planning in 2010, only 20 percent use modern methods, Akbari said.

The root of that discrepancy is a lack of education, and misinterpretation of Islam by a largely illiterate society, he insists, adding, “The religious leader is part of the problem, and part of the solution.” —Maryalice Yakutchik

Ed note: Global Health NOW correspondent Maryalice Yakutchik, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health, is among the journalists reporting from Indonesia at the 2016 ICFP. Check back every day this week for exclusives from the conference: http://www.globalhealthnow.org/intl-conference-family-planning-indonesia-2016.html

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