January 30,2014 — Summary of "A Common Cause: Faith-Based Organizations and Promoting Access to Family Planning in the Developing World," Barot, Guttmacher Policy Review, Fall 2013.
In a policy review, the Guttmacher Institute's Sneha Barot highlights how faith-based organizations' (FBOs) deep-rooted involvement in international development and global health enables them to "play important -- sometimes essential -- roles in providing contraceptive services, raising awareness and advocating for family planning."
In the U.S., it might seem "that faith and family planning are incompatible," given the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' "vocal and aggressive campaign against access to contraception," she writes.
However, the United Methodist Church, Islamic Relief and Christian Health Associations in Africa and numerous other FBOs "consider family planning to be central to their missions to support women, children and families, and integral to their efforts to promote global health," Barot writes. She explains that leaders from many faiths "recognize that access to contraceptive services is essential to the ability of women to protect their own health and well-being, and that of their family."
Fulfilling a Need
Barot notes that in 2012, "of the 867 million women of reproductive age in the developing world who were in need of contraception," only "74% or 645 million were using a modern method." According to Barot, "222 million women in the developing world at risk of unintended pregnancy ... were using a traditional method (which are more likely to fail than modern methods) or no method and, therefore, had an unmet need for modern contraception" that year.
If the need were fulfilled, 54 million unintended pregnancies would be prevented, "which otherwise would result in 21 million unplanned births, 26 million abortions (of which 16 million would be unsafe), seven million miscarriages, 79,000 maternal deaths and 1.1 million infant deaths," Barot writes.
Because evidence shows that adequate birth spacing helps lower death and disability rates, many FBOs have integrated family planning advocacy into their maternal and child health projects. Further, some FBOs that oppose abortion rights support family planning because they recognize "the key role that contraceptives play in reducing the need for abortion overall -- and unsafe abortion in particular, which accounts for 13% of maternal deaths worldwide," according to Barot.
Another way FBOs support family planning is by linking such efforts to their larger missions "to support global antipoverty, education, health, sanitation and other development programs," she continues. This is because family planning investments also yield "many social and economic benefits, by enabling women to determine the timing and spacing of their pregnancies," which, in turn, allows more girls and women to "attend and finish school, improve their economic security, better allocate limited resources to their children and families, and contribute to their communities," Barot explains.
Examples of FBO, Government Partnerships
Many FBOs have partnered with U.S. foreign aid agencies to further family planning initiatives. For example, FBOs and secular groups working with the government through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) "have found common ground on family planning that is often not acknowledged in the public debate," she adds.
USAID's support for such initiatives "includes a variety of strategies, organizations and assistance," including "directly leading advocacy, communication and education efforts, as well as direct services and provision of supplies, to ensure better access to contraception in communities that are of different faiths or backgrounds than themselves."
In some instances, organizations are asked "to engage with local faith-based leaders and to promote behavior change efforts specifically through faith-based messages and messengers," while other projects involve "capacity-building and training of religious leaders, FBOs, community organizations and health care workers," Barot writes.
For example, a program run by the Ganta United Methodist Hospital in Liberia incorporates "family planning into [the hospital's] USAID-supported child survival project." Just over a year after the program's implementation, the proportion of women using contraceptives had increased from 15% to 61%.
Another program in Afghanistan has "educated over 4,800 mullahs and other religious leaders and their wives on family planning and reproductive health issues since 2009," Barot notes. She writes, "Not only did ... mullahs and their wives substantially increase the number of women receiving reproductive health services, the organization was also able to make inroads into isolated communities in politically insecure areas that had little to no access to health services of any kind."
The support of FBOs for "a robust global family planning effort ... should not mask the real limitations and challenges posed by diverse faith-based approaches to family planning," Barot writes. Despite these difficulties, some groups are "striving to find common ground where possible, including by way of greater engagement in public advocacy," she notes. Such efforts "have opened up important dialogues and urged support for improved U.S. policy and increased funding for international family planning programs," she adds.
"FBOs that support family planning are fully aware of how important it is for them to be more vocal, because they are cognizant ... of the many misperceptions and misunderstandings that arise when the politics of religion and reproductive health mix," according to Barot.
She urges policymakers "to catch up with the fact that a large swath of this community actively supports a robust U.S. family planning program overseas, because of the real differences it is making in people's lives."