How Faith-based Organizations Meet Community Need for Family Planning During COVID-19
March 2, 2021
By Cassady Mecate, Baylor University MPH Candidate and CCIH Communications and Advocacy Intern
I watched the session on how faith-based organizations are ensuring women are able to time and space pregnancies despite the COVID-19 pandemic during the International Conference on Family Planning. I learned that despite the destructive nature of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare systems, faith-based organizations can overcome the challenges of the pandemic to serve as reliable resources for the community.
The role of faith leaders has become all the more important as they advise and educate the community on ensuring the protection of children and mothers – particularly expectant mothers – from the virus. Faith leaders have found unique ways to remain connected with their communities through the media and religious institutions to ensure continued family planning and childcare services throughout the pandemic.
Violence Against Children
The first speaker was Tamara Tutnjevic Gorman, Senior Policy Adviser for Ending Violence against Children, Word Vision International.
It is clear the pandemic has left many populations vulnerable. Children are experiencing increased risks of violence within the home and in their communities, as well as greater exposure to online bullying. Increased family stress levels, the closure of schools and public places, and increased economic hardship has exacerbated the issue as some families have turned to negative coping mechanisms to handle the stress and financial burden of the pandemic, including using sexual exploitation and child marriage.
In March of 2020, after just three months of lockdown measures, experts estimated that as many as 85 million children may have suffered from interpersonal violence. That’s about a 30 percent increase in incidence of child violence. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates at least 13 million girls will be subjected to child marriage by 2030 as means to lower household burden or increase family income.
This is not just a problem for the future. These acts of violence are happening now with some communities experiencing double the rates of child marriage as compared to the pre-COVID period. Adolescent girls with a lack of understanding of relationships and reproductive health and family planning knowledge are significantly at risk of sexual violence and teen pregnancy. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, experts suspect teenage pregnancy will increase by 65 percent. World Vision’s projected number of children exposed to violence within three months of lockdown measure due to COVID-19.
“We are at the brink of the new era in humanity, facing a crisis that has exposed all the weaknesses in our world – gender inequality, racism, and violence against children – but every crisis creates an opportunity.” -Tamara Tutnjevic Gorman.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has reduced the capacity of many communities to respond to violence, especially in fragile areas experiencing conflict and with limited access to health care, education and child protection services. However, some communities are taking a proactive approach through localized interventions like education campaigns to support parents, technical solutions to improve reporting of violence, and training first responders, including faith leaders, to help children at risk of violence.
Through World Vision International’s work, over 94,000 faith leaders are engaging in reducing the risks of child violence by identifying the most vulnerable children, strengthening referral mechanisms to services, and opposing beliefs and values that lead to violence and child marriage. Faith leaders in Africa shed light on these issues with government leaders and advocate for improved health and protection services. These faith leaders also make public statements condemning violence against children. World Vision’s partnerships with faith communities across the globe have sparked an opportunity for action.
Faith communities can be beacons of light that “will make invisible suffering visible” by confronting community issues and serving as resources for healing and resiliency by promoting positive attitudes and behaviors to change gender-based inequality and end violence against children.
Media and Creative Ways to Reach Communities
Sheikh Saliou Mbacké, President of Cadre des Religieux pour la Santé et le Développement spoke next, addressing how woman, especially expectant mothers, are another population that is vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cadre des Religieux pour la Santé et le Développement (CRSD), is an interfaith organization in Senegal that supports and implements the Ministry of Health and Social Action’s National Strategic Plan for Family Planning. CRSD increases awareness of their services for women during the pandemic by using social media, television, and radio.
“The choice to use the media is very simple [in] that nowadays you cannot do a good job without passing [messages] … through the media because they are a link to the communities.” -Sheikh Saliou Mbacké.
Over the last four months of 2020, CRSD conducted training and sensitization workshops for religious and community leaders and health care providers to equip them to promote family planning from a faith-based perspective during the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with the social media campaign, CRSD recruited influential women in the community to be community leaders and engage in a door-to-door program to sensitize women to family planning services. These women played a significant role in combating fear in the community of contracting COVID-19 at the clinics by addressing COVID-19 rumors and misinformation and encouraging women to attend health facilities to utilize their family planning services.
CRSD has reached over 12 million people through mass media and identified effective tools for religious leaders to become sensitized to family planning issues, overcome barriers within communities, and encourage women to seek family planning care within health facilities.
“Most importantly, we need to address, in this period, the conspiracy theories about COVID-19, especially prepare people, prepare our communities for vaccination and to fight against vaccination hesitancy. Convince people who are reluctant or hesitant to go to be vaccinated. Religious leaders can do that.” -Sheikh Saliou Mbacké
Given the stigma around family planning in Senegal, CRSD took specific steps to increase the acceptability and use of family planning services, including defining family planning as birth spacing among legally married couples. CRSD sensitized religious leaders who were willing to learn and speak about sensitive issues such as family planning. While the CRSD programming focused on family planning for married couples, religious leaders were welcome to strategize approaches to addressing sensitive topics, such as adolescent contraceptive use, and give youth information to protect themselves and make wise choices.
Linking Communities to Health Facilities through Health Workers and Faith Leaders
Martha Saidi, Project Manager, World Relief Malawi shared how World Relief equips faith leaders with the necessary tools to maintain family planning use and services throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. World Relief has reached 18,755 faith leaders in Malawi under the Strengthening Community Outcomes through Positive Engagement (SCOPE) project. The SCOPE project increases access and utilization of maternal, newborn, and child health and family planning services, and strengthens community and health facility linkages through health workers and faith leaders.
World Relief shared COVID-19 messages with faith leaders to disseminate to their congregations and communities. These messages have been implemented within routine health services and within community meetings with leadership and have helped reduce stigma regarding the virus.
“During prayers, our Sheikhs preach about health issues and also encourage us to take part. When we are praying, we should also take part to prevent COVID-19. We should wash hands frequently with soap. Even if we do every time… we should also follow what the government is talking about.” – Quote from a man in Machinga attending a mosque with a trained religious leader
World Relief has further supported women during the pandemic by training community health workers in family planning and maternal and newborn health services. These services have become essential to addressing maternal and child health as Malawi experienced a 6 percent increase in teenage pregnancy since the start of the pandemic. The COVID-19 programming and inclusion of faith leaders has successfully engaged community members in practices that promote protection from COVID-19 and maternal health.
World Relief has also made an impact in family planning services within Burundi, having reached 10,702 faith leaders with the Impact of Church Based Outreach on Family Planning Project. This project influences the social norms of high fertility rates by utilizing the Families for Life model. This model disseminates education through a peer-to-peer approach where couples initially trained by health workers continue to train other couples who continue to train other couples and so forth.
Faith leaders play a role in this project by acting as counseling resources for couples and addressing family planning within their sermons. During the start of the pandemic, Families for Life couples meetings, church sermons, and family planning services had poor attendance due to fear, stigma, and misinformation spreading about COVID-19. World Relief addressed this by leveraging their relationships with faith leaders and peer couples trusted by their communities.
These leaders shared accurate COVID-19 guidelines and tools with community members to address fears and improve access to family planning services. World Relief also re-designed their couples meeting group sizes to safely engage couples in meetings while following the COVID-19 guidelines promoted by the government. With these changes and the support of influential community leaders, World Relief has been able to continue providing family planning services throughout the pandemic.
Reducing Fear with Facts and Protections
The final organization featured in this family planning session was the Oyani Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Dispensary in Kenya, presented by Nicholas Odhiambo Olwero, a Facility Nursing Officer at the dispensary. The dispensary conducted health education sessions with religious leaders during village assemblies and religious gatherings, which improved community education and encouraged the use of family planning services while observing COVID-19 guidelines.
Faith leaders engaged in mass media via radio to promote family planning and COVID-19 messages in local languages. They also used scripture to clarify misinterpretations of child spacing. Faith leaders encouraged members to use the Booked-in Clients application to set up appointments for long-acting reversible contraceptives at health facilities to maintain safe social distancing. Furthermore, faith leaders collaborated with community members to create sustainable facility outreaches to provide integrated reproductive health services to the community while following COVID-19 guidelines.
The Oyani SDA Dispensary has been successful in reaching male partners and providing male counseling which in turn has led to increased uptake of modern contraceptives. Additionally, they were able to continue to provide access to family planning services despite the fears regarding the pandemic.
“There was a lot of fear for the women in the community … they did not want to come to the facility due to COVID-19, fear that they were going to contract [COVID-19] from us. They were not even coming out from the villages, but due to the dissemination of the COVID-19 [programming] to families [and] communities through church leaders… [and] through radio talks, [and because] it was done well, they started coming to the facility.”
-Nicholas Odhiambo Olwero
The smooth coordination between the Oyani SDA Dispensary staff, county governments, and faith and community leaders has allowed for many women to receive the maternal care they need while adhering to COVID-19 guidelines.
The Big Picture
Faith-based organizations and faith leaders play crucial roles in ensuring communities receive health services. Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen how effectively communities can adapt and innovate projects with the aid of faith leaders that allow for the continuation of care. When we collaborate across sectors with governments, global health actors, and humanitarian organizations to discuss how faith leaders can support family planning practices, we can create smooth health service systems to improve maternal and child health outcomes.
The Faith Subcommittee of the International Conference on Family Planning developed Faith Subcommittee Recommendations outlining the importance of including faith-based organizations within family planning.
The Population Reference Bureau’s ENGAGE presentation demonstrates how faith communities can engage in open dialogue regarding family life education.
The United Mission to Nepal shared a short video exploring community members’ impressions of Christian Family Life Education.
About the Author: MPH Candidate 2021, Cassady Mecate is currently studying Community Health at Baylor University. She plans on pursuing a career in advocacy and policy development to build resilient health systems that can better combat the spread of infectious disease.