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Congo: Faith and Family Planning

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where the large majority of people are Christians, and half of the population is Catholic and a tenth Muslim, religion holds a lot of sway.

Reproductive rights and family planning are controversial topics for many religious groups and their devotees. And in the past, religious groups in DRC have steered clear of openly discussing sexual and reproductive health issues, not to mention modern contraception.

But the dire consequences of an under-resourced reproductive health system cannot be ignored. With a decades-long conflict, crumbling infrastructure and a rapidly growing and youthful population, DRC is struggling with some of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world.

Government, civil society and international actors are increasingly engaging with religious groups to tackle these enormous challenges. Faith leaders can be excellent advocates in their communities and may be key to addressing popular attitudes towards family planning in DRC.

PAI has supported two faith-based organizations in Kinshasa to advocate both with congregants and faith leaders.

“In our (Muslim) community it was taboo to talk about family planning,” says Aïcha Basue, or Mama Aïcha, advocate and director of Muslim organization and PAI grantee, Maman Ansar.

“It was thought that this was against our religion. But we found a way to talk to Imams and now they preach about it in the Mosque.”

Maman Ansar, which means Warrior Women, spent time with DRC’s Grand Mufti to explain why Muslim women needed family planning information. Together with the National Reproductive Health Program (PNSR) and Imams across Kinshasa, Maman Ansar developed a declaration of commitment to promote family planning signed by more than 40 Imams.

“This was a first. These leaders came out and said that it was okay to use these methods. It was significant. No one before had said publicly that Imams can discuss these things,” Mama Aicha says.

Maman Ansar works with Imams and runs workshops in 20 of Kinshasa’s 65 mosques on available family planning methods. Certain methods such as vasectomy and tube-tying are prohibited by Islamic doctrine and condoms remain controversial. But for Mama Aicha, Muslim women need all the information:

“In my experience, Muslim women need methods that they will actually use. We cannot impose anything. We give all the options but it’s really for her to decide.”

Conduite de la Fecondité, a Catholic reproductive health organization also supported by PAI, raises awareness in over 100 parishes in the capital, training community workers to educate parishioners. They have been working on family planning methods for over three decades.

“There was a real problem in our parishes with planning births. Couples were overwhelmed with the number of children they had and the family income was not enough,” says Constantin Tshisuaka, Conduite board member and long-time Catholic family planning advocate.

The Catholic Church prohibits use of artificial contraception, as well as abortion and sex outside of marriage. Within this framework, Conduite focuses their efforts on getting out accurate information about family planning methods, from natural methods like cycle beads to medical methods such as injectables, pills and implants. If someone opts for a modern contraceptive method, Conduite facilitators put them in touch with partner clinics who offer family planning services.

“We have a network of community facilitators for our Catechism of Marriage classes who prepare young couples for marriage. We have now included family planning education into this,” Tshisuaka says.

Currently, Conduite works in 7 of the 48 Catholic Dioceses across the country and they want to expand their reach to more remote areas where knowledge levels of contraceptive methods are low.

Strong voices from religious leaders can make all the difference. Still, it is a delicate dance for faith-based groups working on family planning, to balance the constraints of religious doctrine with the population’s reproductive health needs.

The majority of clinics in DRC are private and many are run by faith-based groups. While some of these clinics are open to providing contraception and even post-abortion services, quality provision of family planning services is contingent on the discretion of the doctor.

Faith-based groups also tend to focus education efforts on married or fiancé-ed couples. Congolese youth advocates would like to see them advocate more for comprehensive sexual health information for youth. Benjamin Buyere, a youth advocate who coordinates the Youth Forum on Sustainable Development, says contraception is still a major taboo, particularly for the Catholic Church:

“It is a sin. But the church does recognize the importance of contraception to space births. The pope recognized the importance of contraception, but to promote this [in DRC] is still very difficult.”

Francoise Mukuku, Director of the youth advocacy organization and PAI grantee, Si Jeunesse Savait, agrees.

“Today the churches refuse to talk to young people about condoms. They talk to us about HIV and sex education but they skip some key steps in how to protect yourself. Abstinence is not realistic as the only method of protection for youth.”

Marie Musifu, president of the Movement for Youth Action, would like to see religious leaders of all denominations come together to advocate for the health needs of youth.

“Young people need good and correct information above all. We need to engage more with churches and religious leaders. We work already with the youth leaders at lower levels. But if we could have a network of religious leaders who speak out, then we could break the silence on this issue.”

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