Enhancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Well Being of Young People

The religions of the world have a rich history of engagement with adolescents and youth. Religious leaders and faith based organisations take responsibility, alongside parents and the state, for nurturing children, by equipping them with values and skills required to grow into adulthood. The imperative to protect young people, but also to take seriously their own experiences and perspectives, are foundational principles contained within in most religions. Religious youth are not always given adequate voice within their traditions, but they remain a significant and permanent fixture in all faith communities, who continue to challenge and refresh all faith traditions.

Given the holistic nature of much work carried out by faith based organizations, they often provide multiple entry points, for engaging with adolescents and youth. Most FBOs have some form of youth group, youth worship, youth formation or youth leadership scheme. In addition religious organisations run schools, health centres, vocational training schemes, as well as other outreach programmes for orphans and vulnerable youth, such as migrants and refugees. These services are ‚Äėready made‚Äô platforms for engagement, which are currently being underutilized by the UN. Local FBOs and religious leaders are rooted in local communities and frequently their networks are able to stretch far beyond the reach of the UN or the state. This means their service provision and wider presence and engagement with local communities is rich in social capital.

Religion exerts significant influence over young people’s lives, but the reality is the impact of this engagement not always benign. FBOs have a mixed track record; sometimes promoting empowerment and fostering protection; and at other times suppressing young people’s rights and hampering their wellbeing. Some FBOs encourage violence and intolerance in young people and fail to protect vulnerable youth from violence and abuse or to hold those responsible to account. Other more subtle forms of oppression are exerted when FBOs deny young people access to information and fail in their duty to educate girls and boys so they can grow into their potential.

Much has been written by religious scholars on the spirituality of young people, however relatively little consideration has been given to how the psychological aspect of spiritual growth might impact on the behavior of adolescents and youth. Although the UN recognizes the religious dimension of children and youth in the Convention of the Rights of the Child[i], often this is limited to protecting an individual’s freedom to engage in religious activities and consigned to the private sphere. A deeper appreciation that personal faith is both a public and a private matter is needed, to understand how young people’s spiritual values, identity and participation impacts on their capacity to make informed choices in all spheres of life. This must be balanced against an acknowledgement that religious values are not the sole or defining factor of any individual or community, but instead are mediated through culture, gender, ethnicity, age and socio-economic status. A more nuanced and contextual approach is required from religious organisations and the UN to understand how religion influences and is influenced by multiple factors.

Adolescence is a time of great change and growth, when young people are negotiating a range of influences, including religious ones. Strategies, including work on sexual and reproductive health, which seek to support the wellbeing and dignity of adolescents and youth, need to give greater consideration to internal and external drivers of wellbeing generated by religion, spirituality and the work of FBOs. This paper will seek to unpack some of these dimensions and suggest ways forward for more fruitful collaboration between FBOs the UN and faith based organizations on the sexual and reproductive health of adolescents and youth.