Religions Potential Allies for Social Change, Round Table on Partnership with Civil Society Told

United Nations Population Fund
Contact: in New York:
Alex Marshall
Fax: (212) 557-6416

Abubakar Dungus
William Ryan

The ICPD+5 review process

DHAKA, Bangladesh, 29 July -- Organized religion is "potentially one of the best allies of social transformation", although it has been used to block change, Frances Kissling of Catholics for Free Choice said today. She was speaking in a plenary session on day three of the Round Table on Partnership with Civil Society in the Implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action.

Ms. Kissling, President of the United States-based non-governmental organization (NGO), was one of four panellists on the topic of social mobilization. A second panel of four speakers discussed ways to strengthen civil society groups and ensure their accountability and financial sustainability.

Convened by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and hosted by the Government of Bangladesh, the four-day round-table meeting is part of "ICPD+5", a series of international activities reviewing progress since the the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. They will culminate in an international forum next February in The Hague, the Netherlands, and a special session of the United Nations General Assembly in June and July 1999.

About 70 participants from some 40 countries -- representatives from NGOs and other sectors of civil society as well as from governments -- are discussing national experiences in carrying out the ICPD action plan, with a focus on civil society involvement. The aim is to identify successes and constraints, and recommend actions to accelerate progress -- particularly policy changes that will facilitate partnerships involving a broad range of civil society actors, as called for in the Programme of Action.

Organized religions can be "both liberating and constraining", Ms. Kissling observed. "The ICPD and took place in a time when the constraining aspects are in dominance worldwide." Nevertheless, religions are potential allies in working towards the goals of ICPD, she said, because they all "start with the notion of the need to reduce suffering, to create a world that is just, and to take responsibility for the planet and the environment".

Religion reaches more people than any other sector of civil society. "It has assets, is one of the most effective providers of social services, and has access to governments," she added.

NGOs supporting ICPD goals should therefore make a political commitment to cultivate allies in the religious community, to talk to those within that community who oppose the ICPD agenda, and to work to bring the voices of religious people into discussions on implementing the Programme of Action.

"While the conservatives are dominant now, there are forces that are calling for liberalization within most religions,"she said, including Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. "Those forces should be engaged in dialogue since the pendulum will swing towards them one day. Within every religion, there are people of faith who can move the ICPD agenda forward."

Responding to a Ugandan participant’s question on how to respond to the Catholic Church’s opposition to the distribution of condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS, she said religious people must speak up against wrong positions taken by their leaders.

"Catholics must admit that the Church is sometimes wrong," she said. "It was wrong when it taught that the world was flat. It was wrong when it said slavery was moral. And it is wrong when it teaches that other considerations should be placed above using condoms to prevent death and disease."

Also speaking on the need to work with religious organizations was Abdullah Syarwani. He is an adviser with Nahdlatul Ulama ("renaissance of religious scholars"), Indonesia’s largest religious organization. The Jakarta-based organization has some 40 million members. It was formed by Muslim scholars in 1926 to preserve and carry out the Sunni Islamic teaching in the social, cultural and political contexts of modern Indonesia.

Nahdlatul Ulama representatives have worked to improve the lives of families in Indonesia and helped carry out government family planning and population programmes, he said. Its leaders understand that reproductive health is a manifestation of physical health, and have issued fatwas (religious edicts) on family planning. They have allowed women to get more education, and even helped them become judges in Islamic courts. The organization’s strong links with schools, universities and health clinics make it a useful instrument for distributing new ideas.

Dhruv Dey of the Majulika Foundation for Human Concerns, a former executive with India’s Tata Corporation, describe a programme he helped launch for adolescents, with a special emphasis on spreading the word about reproductive health and family planning. The Tata Group, which he once headed, has once been engaged in social mobilization to carry the message of the ICPD Programme of Action to the grass roots. The first step it took was to form partnerships with mothers-in-law, whose support is needed to enable married women to go for heath care services or attend family planning clinics.

Next, the group helped initiate community-based clinics run by youth clubs and voluntary organizations. It subsequently worked with tribal communities where contraceptive use was low, convincing them to use a clinic provided to reduce maternal and child mortality and deal with other reproductive heath concerns.

To get other companies involved, Tata Group showed them that investments in reproductive health and related services yield substantial benefits, he said. It also engaged in advocacy with local community partners by using posters; music, including India’s first population song and an AIDS/HIV song; as well as dance drama on family planning and reproductive heath.

The founder and Executive Director of Youth Development Foundation (YDF) of Ghana, Nelson G. Agyemang, talked about his organization’s grass-roots work on adolescent reproductive health and development in six of the country’s districts and in Cameroon.

"Advocacy is both a tool and a goal of social mobilization," he said. The best advocates are those who have experience on a particular issue; are convinced; and take the initiative to do things. To improve their chances of success, advocates should research their audiences, know how to frame the issues, use information from credible, trusted sources, and present their case in a simple, clear and concise manner.

The plenary then turned to a discussion on "partnership for capacity-strengthening, accountability, coalition-building and financial sustainability". Abul Barkat, an economics professor at Dhaka University, said the experience in Bangladesh showed the need for accountability by NGOs.

"Those to whom NGOs are accountable need clear information on how their common goals are accomplished. Key to this relationship is transparency," he said. "Improved sharing of information is the bridge to build mutual trust and understanding, which form the foundation for successful partnerships. NGOs should listen to and initiate actions with the people they are supposed to serve."

Susan Davis, Executive Director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), told round-table participants that building coalitions requires skills, confidence and a strategy of using each organization’s comparative advantage. At the same time, there must be mechanisms that let groups keep track of the "big picture" -- their common goals and agenda. Organizing women’s caucuses in parliaments and engaging peer groups are among the methods that can be used to promote coalitions’ goals, such as providing microcredit to poor women. Strengthening the capacity of organizations requires a commitment by managers to invest in training and rewarding staff, she said.

Glenda Simms, Executive Director of the Jamaican Government’s Bureau of Women’s Affairs, suggested ways for governments to engage poor and marginalized urban and rural. She cited her bureau’s partnership with the Jamaica Household Workers Association to promote women’s agenda. That experience, she said, showed that governments should respect the autonomy of their partner NGOs.

Before adjourning to continue their four working group discussions, participants heard a presentation by representatives of Partners in Population and Development: A South-South Initiative. The group, headquarted in Dhaka, is an alliance of 13 developing countries which promotes the exchange of national experience to advance the ICPD agenda.

(For information purposes only. Not an official document.)

Back to Round-table on Partnership with Civil Society in Implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action Dhaka, Bangladesh, 27-30 July 199