Culturally sensitive approaches

Cultures adapt to change, and they also contribute to it. Credit: Mani Babar

In 1948, the international community endorsed basic human rights principles. Despite diverse cultures and circumstances, UN Member States agreed on the fundamental dignity and equality of all human beings.

UNFPA applies these principles to some of the most sensitive and intimate spheres of human existence -- including sexuality, reproductive health and gender. Its effectiveness depends, on part, on its ability to understand the cultural dynamics of the communities it works with.

Culture matters

What does culture mean in the context of sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights? Who are the true agents of change in different cultural contexts? How can culture be the tipping point of development effectiveness?

UNFPA deals with all of these questions on a regular basis as it works to improve the lives of women and young people. The answers are critical to success on issues such as child marriage, female genital mutilation, family planning and gender equality.

The domain of culture has also emerged as a potent area of discussion and the subject of an interfaith declaration arounda new global development agenda. Some of this work is facilitated through the United Nations Inter-agency Task Force on Engaging with Faith-based Organizations for Sustainable Development.

Getting sustainable results

In 2002, UNFPA set out to work in a more culturally sensitive manner so as to achieve better and more sustainable results with its programming.

Real success, UNFPA has learned,  depends upon a willingness to listen carefully and invest time in understanding how people think, what they believe and how they behave. It requires an understanding of the formal and informal power structures underpinning communities. This often means listening, engaging in dialogue, and sharing knowledge and insights with community groups and influential individuals, as well political or religious leaders, before jointly planning to move ahead. It also entails identifying the positive, as well as the challenging, cultural values, assets, expressions and power structures.

Culture is a matrix of infinite possibilities and choices. From within the same culture matrix we can extract arguments and strategies for the degradation and ennoblement of our species, for its enslavement or liberation, for the suppression of its productive potential or its enhancement.—Wole Sovinka, Nigerian Nobel Laureate

Partnering with community and faith-based networks

Often churches, mosques, schools, health units, youth organizations and business enterprises have country-wide networks that can be built upon. Working through these established networks can lend credibility and familiarity to new initiatives, and reduce the perception of changes being imposed by external actors. This is especially important if initiatives seem threatening to community values.

Decades of UNFPA experience with the faith-based sector have gone into producing Guidelines for Engaging Faith-Based Organisations as Cultural Agents of Change. They outline a framework of partnerships, including principles, the strategies and operationalization at national, regional and global levels.

UNFPA-supported programmes have reached some of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities through partnerships with faith- and interfaith organizations. In many places these groups are already supplying a large percentage of social services.

Reaching common ground

Identifying specific areas of collaboration in areas where both partners have common objectives, and providing evidence-based approaches for addressing them can be effective. For example, leaders of most faith- and interfaith organizations can agree on the need to protect the health and wellbeing of their constituents. Proven approaches for improving infant and maternal health or HIV prevalence can lead to consensus based on ethical and moral positions. Many local leaders have changed their attitudes about UNFPA once they realized the value its approaches can have for the well-being of their constituents.

To further such relationships, UNFPA has created a valuable resource for development partners, the Global Interfaith Network for Population and Development. For information on accessing this directory, contact Azza Karam at

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