Though they may follow different traditions, and worship very differently, religious organizations can agree on many things, including the importance of family life and maternal health. A network of diverse faith-based organizations, started a decade ago with support from UNFPA, has teamed up to bring reproductive health education and services to local communities and to address the needs of young people.
Religious and faith-based institutions have a great deal of influence among their followers in Ghana. The combined network of these institutions is large and well structured, with churches, mosques and missions in every part of the country, along with affiliated schools, hospitals and community centres. Most Ghanaians consider themselves religious: a recent survey by the Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana showed that 78 per cent of Ghanaians attend a religious activity at least once a week.
In 1994, Ghana initiated a programme to help religious institutions address the challenging topic of reproductive health, particularly modern methods of family planning. The programme was financed by UNFPA and implemented by the Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana. Although there was no organized religious opposition to family planning in Ghana at the time, a number of misconceptions created pockets of resistance. Moreover, few religious leaders fully understood the links between population, health and development.
At the beginning, four of the leading religious institutions in the country were approached to become part of the network. As time went on, other faith-based organizations, including the Muslim Relief Association and the Inspirational Youth Choir, asked to join. The overall goals were to improve the reproductive health of adolescents through targeted interventions, increase the contraceptive prevalence rate to 50 per cent, and to achieve a population growth rate of 1.5 per cent by 2020 (estimated at 2.2 for the period 2000-2005).
The programme, which is still ongoing, supports each participating religious organization in reaching out to three nearby communities, regardless of their religious orientation. lnitially, emphasis was placed on advocacy and capacity-building in the community. Later, trained focal points and peer educators began providing information as well as services, outreach, research and communications materials, and training in livelihood skills.
Although various strategies are employed, the particular methods used in any one community are up to the religious institutions themselves. If their doctrines allow, some organizations are providing condoms, undertaking counselling, and referring clients to health centres. Others are assisting in income-generating activities.
If problems arise that are specifically related to another religious tradition, the project coordinator or focal point consults with or refers them to another organization in the network. Each organization is a source of guidance and support for the others on culturally sensitive issues ranging from family life to the prevention of HIV/AIDS and teenage pregnancy. In this way, diverse religious institutions have been brought together to interact, plan and discuss issues of mutual concern.
From an initial group of four organizations, the network has tripled in size. Nearly 4,000 leaders and staff of religious institutions representing almost all parts of the country have been sensitized on reproductive health issues, including harmful traditional practices such as early marriage and female genital cutting. Moreover, discussion of such issues will soon be part of the training curricula for new leaders in both Christian and Muslim communities.
A strong indicator of the success of the programme is the fact that a number of religious organizations have developed project budgeting and management skills and have secured funding from a variety of sources for this work and related activities.
Providing accurate information and relevant data, prior to designing grass-roots advocacy work, is important to dispel any fears or misconceptions and to get the full support of communities.
Dialogue, sensitization and joint programming with faith-based organizations should be a long-term endeavour, carried out beyond a single programming cycle. This allows the partnership to mature and trust to fully develop, multiplying the chances for positive results.
Mainstreaming some project activities into the regular programme of a partner organization helps ensure sustainability.
Presentation of hard data is one of the best advocacy tools available for clarifying misconceptions and obtaining support.
Building up the project management skills of partner organizations will help them to attract financing from a variety of sources and become self-reliant.