In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the important role that religious leaders (RLs) and faith communities play in shaping health-seeking behaviour. Religious leaders are often influencers of morality and ethics, defining what is prescribed or proscribed by a faith. This is particularly relevant with respect to family planning and population issues as they are at the point where religion, culture and morality overlap.
Religious Leaders through their mother bodies (Muslim Association of Malawi – MAM, Quadria Muslim Association of Malawi – QMAM, Malawi Council of Churches – MCC, Catholic Health Commission – CHC, Evangelical Association of Malawi – EAM, Seventh Day – SD) are supportive of the efforts to integrate issues of family planning and managing population growth in their religious teachings.
Religious communities just like any other community are not immune to problems resulting from lack of family planning and overpopulation. Women are predisposed to having unplanned pregnancies resulting to too many and too frequent children that they cannot properly take care of, and this also contributes to their poor health and that of their families. However, family planning improves health of the mother and socio-economic development of the family. Healthy families can greatly contribute to the development of their congregations and the country. Therefore, religious leaders are justifiable to play a key role in promoting family planning and managing population growth.
Family planning issues and choices are sometimes confusing and religious followers often get confusing messages about what God wants, what the scripture says, and what is responsible behaviour for each of them. However, religious leaders can play a key role in clearing the confusion and preventing the problems that would arise due to rapid population growth, both to their followers and the nation as a whole.
In population and development circles, engaging religious leaders in managing population growth especially family planning promotion as a key strategy, is crucial. It is also of great importance for religious leaders to advocate for keeping girls in school to delay first pregnancy, promote gender equality issues and many more.
When faith leaders understand population issues, they can convey messages to the majority considering that 97% of Malawians have a religion of some kind. This can ensure a significant impact of population and development efforts in the country.
Moreover, as religious leaders have readily available audiences, utilizing that opportunity to educate the masses about the benefits of family planning to individuals, families, communities, and the country as a whole can significantly lead to improvement in managing of Malawi’s population growth.
Furthermore, family planning information and practices that are supported by religious leaders and institutions are more likely to be accepted by the community. It is therefore imperative that religious leaders have accurate and appropriate information and skills to help their followers make informed choices on matters related to their health and well-being. Messages from religious leaders have real meaning to people and are often acted upon.
All these, however, rely on well informed religious leaders who can help direct followers choices and responsibilities, both on an individual level, and community level.
HPP-supported Population Weekends: Futures Group, through its work in the USAID-funded Health Policy Project (HPP), has been working in a complementary effort with religious leaders to engage them as community advocates for family planning in Malawi, most notably through “Population Weekend” events. The idea behind is that religious leaders integrate family planning population messages in their sermons and routine activities. In this work, HPP collaborates with the key Religious Governing Councils in Malawi.
On a population Friday, Muslims integrate family planning population messages in their sermons; with Christians doing the same on Saturday for Seventh Day; Sunday, for the rest of the Christian community. Prior to Population Weekend, meetings are conducted with religious leaders both at district and T/A levels in order to sensitise them, plan and schedule dates for the proposed Population Weekend.
Population Weekends have, so far, been implemented in Mangochi (August, 2013), Kasungu (January, 2014), Lilongwe (February, 2014), Karonga (March, 2014) and Balaka (June, 2014) districts. Plans are underway to roll out the Population Weekend in other districts.
HPP-supported Joint Open Days: Borrowing the Population Weekend approach, the concept behind a Joint Open Day goes a step further by bringing all religious groups together. The idea behind the Joint Open Day stems from the fact that all religions are supportive of family planning as a means of achieving better health and development outcomes. As such, during this day, the faith community comes with one theme that is supportive of population issues and that family planning is a key strategy to achieving development goals.
The open day is conducted on an open ground where each religious mother body showcases their individual population messages in support of FP. These messages are however respective of different doctrines that govern each of the corresponding religious groups. The first ever religious leaders’ joint open day on population and development was done in Balaka district on 26th June, 2014.