Workshop highlights: Faith and adolescents’ sexual health and rights

Gloria Masula, Youth Partnerships Officer, FP2030 ESA Hub and Margaret Bolaji- Youth Partnerships Manager, FP2030 NWCA Hub 

FP2030, in collaboration with members of the faith and family planning working groups, hosted a three-day workshop in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire in October. The meeting was aimed at driving progress toward FP2030 commitments at regional and country levels through robust, meaningful, and strategic engagements with faith leaders. Participants at the workshop included faith-focused partners, faith leaders and young people from across Africa. 

The workshop focused on the intersection of faith and adolescent and youth sexual and reproductive health (AYSRH) to share best practices on effective faith-based AYSRH programming and the role of faith in youth contraceptive use. 

The panel opened with a presentation by Fiacre Bazie from Institut Superieur des Sciences de la Population (ISSP), Ouagadougou who presented findings from a qualitative research study on the role of religion and religious leaders on adolescent and youth contraceptive use conducted in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Kenya. The study revealed that:

  • Despite the practice of their religion and the strong perspective religious norms, young women make choices that address the various difficulties imposed on them. Particularly young, unmarried users who prefer to use contraception without their religion’s approval and avoid a non-marital or unintended pregnancy that is viewed as a failure. 
  • Religious influence is important and decisive in access to reproductive health services and products for women in general and young people in particular.  
  • There is a need for support from religious leaders who see family planning favorably. Unfortunately, young people do not necessarily perceive their religious leaders as a source of support within their communities, as very few are aware of their positive actions or roles. 
  • Sharing and raising awareness of leaders’ messages on acceptability of use to align religious leaders’ current beliefs with young women’s actions/desires.  
  • It is crucial to promote religious leaders’ positions and confidence on the issue of access to reproductive health information and services for unmarried young people, so that they in turn influence the religious community. 

The youth focal points at the workshop shared relevant stories expressing the need for religious leaders to support in dispelling several myths and misconceptions on family planning in their communities. Glory Kathambi, a youth focal point from Kenya said, “As custodians of faith, we respect religious leaders including our parents, we want them to open up to us and tell us about sexuality issues because hearing from them has a lot of value.” Traditional leaders and Faith leaders should be flexible to share sexual and reproductive health information to young people because their voices are powerful. Another youth focal point commented, “Religious leaders need to stop condemning young people, we are your children, we need you to guide us and counsel us. This goes a long way in the life of a young person.” 

Reacting to the conversation, most of the religious leaders expressed that abstinence is the religious expectation for young unmarried people to practice.  

One of the church leaders stood up and said, “We cannot talk about sex outside of marriage. We have boundaries we cannot overstep. What you, young people, are asking from us is difficult for us to do as our mandate is to preach abstinence. Is there something else that you require from us?” 

However, another participant from a faith organisation agreed with the sentiments from the young people being presented. She said, “We cannot ignore the numbers and evidence of young people’s pregnancy rates, abortions, and deaths. We need a participatory approach to find a common ground.” 

The session pointed out clearly that each participant in the room has a role to play, including the religious leaders, while also understanding their limits. The key messages included; 

  • Messaging on AYSRH is key especially among religious leaders, traditional leaders and young people.  
  • Young people are not a homogenous group, they have to be treated separately depending on their different needs. There is no one solution to these issues presented but needs a holistic approach. 
  • Dialogues between youth and religious leaders are a starting point, and FP2030 should facilitate that.  
  • We must be intentional and invest in facilitating inter-generational dialogues particularly among faith, traditional leaders, and young people. 
  • We also need to ensure the engagement of young religious leaders in family planning and sexual and reproductive health and rights conversations. 
  • Explore religious leaders’ use of technology (particularly phones) to teach youth about sexuality and scripture. We must equip religious leaders to move their teaching from paper to digital. 

While several religious leaders expressed discomfort in discussing contraceptive use for unmarried women as sexual activity outside of marriage is not acceptable religiously, a few upheld the need to save lives first and how important it is to stop condemning young people, talk to them and counsel them. The work in this arena is only just beginning. 

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