By Zarah Iqbal, Policy Intern
A recent article in the Times of India described how some religious leaders in Afghanistan (called mullahs) have been encouraging their communities to use contraception, using quotes from the Quran to support their claims.
The most recent edition of the Bulletin of the World Health Organization (WHO) describes the actual study on which the article was based. In 2005, Afghanistan was tied for the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world, at 1800 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.
It also has an incredibly high fertility rate, especially considering it has been in a state of war and conflict. According to WHO Statistical Information System, in 2006, each woman gave birth to 7.2 children on average. In 2003, contraceptive prevalence in Afghanistan was incredibly low, at 10.3%, as compared to the US, which was 73.8% in 2002.
In this study, government workers and NGOs embarked on a plan in three specific regions of Afghanistan to strengthen family planning services, and create a model for the rest of the country. They hypothesized, and studies have shown, that access to adequate family planning services reduces maternal mortality. The contraception provided was largely free to community members, and the workers were encouraged to use innovative methods of promoting family planning.
The article stressed how their model was successful because it incorporated cultural competency in its methods. Upon arriving in the sample regions, the health workers realized that local health care providers, religious leaders, and community members had significant misconceptions about the risks and side effects of contraceptive use. By providing accurate information about the safety and efficacy of contraceptives, coupled with religious quotes approved by the mullahs, the health workers promoted use of contraception, and after 8 months, contraceptive use in the project areas increased by 24-27%.
The article stresses the importance of involved community religious leaders, who responded well to the initiative after receiving information about the project:
Mullahs’ concerns centred on safety and infertility, rather than religion. Through dialogue, all 37 mullahs in the project areas accepted the concept of birth spacing using modern contraceptives. This does not imply that all Afghan mullahs will quickly endorse modern contraceptives.
The mullahs then were a source of support for the health workers, and assisted them in disseminating information and encouraging community members to consider contraception.
Religious leaders have an incredible impact on their communities, as people from every country in the world look towards their religious leaders for support and guidance. Most often, religion is seen as an enemy of the reproductive justice movement, especially considering the involvement of the religious authorities, particularly the Catholic Church, in the anti-choice movement and its opposition to contraception, homosexuality and abortion.
An essential component of the movement is access to information and education about reproductive health and rights. Community religious leaders in many parts of the world could be used as a resource because many marginalized or under-served communities have strong religious support systems. Finding a way to use this support system as a resource rather than treating it as a possible threat could pave the way to advocating for reproductive justice and promoting comprehensive reproductive education in a more holistic and successful way.
By Zarah Iqbal, Policy Intern