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A Discussion on the Intersection of Faith and Reproductive Health

Analysis Florence Machio, Guest Blogger

In many developing countries, faith-based organizations are key healthcare providers and advocates, delivering a significant proportion of primary health care services, including reproductive, maternal, and newborn care.

Faith Plus Family Planning is a PAI initiative that provides faith-based organizations in the developing world with small grants and technical support to help hold governments accountable for providing quality family planning and reproductive health services. We recently caught up with Abdullatif Shaban, director general of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM) to discuss the intersection of faith and sexual and reproductive health (SRH).

How is faith related to sexual and reproductive health?

In the context of faith, SRH issues are frequent conversations in the life of a Muslim. SRH verses in the holy Quran are important entry points to create awareness and support for interventions on child spacing and HIV/AIDS and to complement the government’s efforts.

What does SUPKEM do in relation to sexual and reproductive health?

Because sexual and reproductive health is an important subject in the teachings of the Islamic faith, one of SUPKEM’s mandates is to advocate for holistic approaches to understanding Islam—including sexual and reproductive health. We have worked on SRH issues since 1999 when Kenya declared HIV/AIDS a national disaster.

Tell us about some of your programs.

There is a common belief in Muslim culture that one can have as many children as one wishes because God will take care of them. This makes it difficult for people to take up family planning even when introduced by the government. With support from organizations like PAI, we undertook a family planning project in 2015 that covered three counties in the coastal region—Mombasa, Kilifi and Lamu. Because most people receive counsel from their religious leaders, our goal was to work with clerics as one way to ensure that people get the right information about sexual and reproductive health from the people they trust most.

At the same time, it was also important to share with the clerics the complementary interfaces of theology and science to show that the two are not in conflict. To facilitate this, we worked with eminent scholars from the Al Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt to conduct workshops for clerics. We hope that the combination of these interventions will contribute to increasing the uptake of family planning services.

What are some early successes of the program?

The Al Azhar scholars introduced deeper insights into the theological understanding of Quranic verses on family planning and sex education, and at the same time were able to challenge the long-held belief that Muslims should not worry about the sustenance of large families. Instead, emphasis was placed on healthy families that can be sustained using individual family and national resources.

With Kenya having moved to a devolved system of government, most decisions like budgetary allocations for family planning commodities rest heavily on the county governments. A major outcome of the project is the securing of early support from county governors and national government coordinators. Ideally, this buy-in will translate into higher budgetary allocations for family planning and sexual and reproductive health, particularly within those counties with troubling indicators on child mortality and contraceptive prevalence.

What do you see as some of the challenges related to sexual and reproductive health still facing Kenyan society?

Without a doubt, cultural beliefs and religious misconceptions remain a major threat to SRH programs in Kenya, especially sex education. Religious institutions are in a good position and can play a major role in reducing some of the misconceptions harbored by their followers.

By developing capacity-building programs where scientific innovations and discoveries are co-related and discussed within religious theological teachings and interpretations, we will be able to debunk most of the myths that stop our people from embracing family planning and sex education. Young people need direction. Greater access to reproductive health information will reduce teenage pregnancy and the spread of diseases like HIV. Combined, all of this will contribute to making Kenya thrive economically and socially.

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