UNFPA has adopted a strategy of “selective collaboration” with the Catholic Church in Brazil: identifying and working together in those areas where objectives coincide, while respecting the boundaries inherent in each partner's mandate.
Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world. Nearly three quarters of its 179 million people follow that faith. Despite the Church's stance on family planning, contraceptive use in Brazil is high, as are the levels of teenage pregnancy and abortion. A study by the UNFPA office in Brazil found that, between 1993 and 1998, deliveries among girls aged 10 to 14 in government hospitals and clinics had increased by nearly a third. According to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, 12 per cent of all maternal deaths in the country are the result of unsafe abortions. They are also the cause of an estimated one in five deaths among young Brazilian women.
It was within this context that collaboration began, in the early 1990s, between Pastoral da Criança, a Catholic NGO whose mission was to increase child survival by promoting maternal and infant health, and UNFPA. Pastoral's network of more than 150,000 volunteers (mostly mothers) reached more than a million families across the country with information on how to care for young children. The volunteers also provided guidance on spacing pregnancies through natural methods condoned by the Catholic Church. For both UNFPA and Pastoral, an interest in spacing pregnancies was sufficient ground for the two organizations to work together.
At first, UNFPA, together with UNICEF, provided funding for a radio programme sponsored by Pastoral da Criança. The faith-based organization agreed that the broadcast could include talks on reproductive health and family planning as well as maternal and child health. For the next 18 months, radio shows, audiovisual and printed materials dealing with various aspects of family planning were produced. Although the emphasis was on birth spacing through natural methods, modern methods of contraception were also introduced. Pastoral da Criança provided all of this information to their volunteers, who, in turn, conveyed it to their clients during home visits.
An evaluation of the project pointed out the need to expand interventions in family planning, and a subsequent assessment revealed needs that were broader still. These included action on issues related to the prevention of abortion, sexually transmitted infections, single motherhood, teenage pregnancies, abandonment of children and gender violence. The research stirred a good deal of interest among Pastoral's members and many wanted to expand their efforts in the area of reproductive health. At the same time, Pastoral da Criança realized that their broadcasts on sexuality were not being listened to by youths. Clearly they needed to change their approach in order to communicate to this important audience.
The timing seemed right for further collaboration between the two organizations: UNFPA could provide assistance in developing approaches and targeting messages that spoke to the community, particularly young people. And Pastoral da Criança had a network of volunteers and staff throughout the country with which to carry out the programme. For UNFPA, working with Pastoral lent a certain legitimacy to its efforts and facilitated its involvement with grass-roots communities. For Pastoral da Criança, working with UNFPA exposed its members to new concepts and widened their perspectives on reproductive health.
As the project was about to be expanded, in 1999, UNFPA experienced a major financial crisis that forced it to re-budget some of its activities. At the same time, and following a visit by the Pope to Brazil, Pastoral decided to review its partnership with UNFPA. Although both parties agreed that the collaboration had been fruitful, Pastoral decided to tap other sources of funding, including Brazil's Ministry of Health.
Despite the ending of the partnership, it yielded important lessons for UNFPA. Among them was the understanding that even the most powerful religious institutions are not monolithic. Within the Catholic Church, certain progressive branches exist, including the Communidades Eclesiais de Base, whose Catholic clergy understand the harsh realities of the country's poor and are ardent advocates on their behalf. Finding areas in which the interests and goals of the Catholic Church and UNFPA coincide, and building from this base, is a way to bridge the differences between the two institutions.
Even within seemingly monolithic institutions, there are different schools of thought. Recognizing this can provide openings for work with nontraditional partners.
Adopting a strategy of selective collaboration becomes possible when all partners agree to respect each other's mandates and beliefs, while demonstrating the openness and willingness to work with each other within the boundaries set by each institution.
Supporting grass-roots organizations whose networks and coverage are extensive, especially among women, can be a way of broadening UNFPA's reach.