This featured perspective was originally published as a Comment in The Lancet, Vol 11, December 2023. Click here to view the original or scroll down to download the PDF.
In The Lancet Global Health, Agrey H Mwakisole and colleagues explore the role of Christian religious leaders in promoting family planning in rural Tanzania. Given the roles that religious leaders can hold as trusted community messengers, the Article provides strong recommendations for including them in family planning initiatives, suggesting that, as an innovative and adaptable strategy, it could contribute positively to global initiatives towards universal access to modern contraception, if implemented broadly. The researchers also engaged equal numbers of male and female religious leaders, and data from this study suggest that the intervention increased women’s autonomy to choose to use contraception.
There are a lot of data to support this approach. Faith leaders have been shown to hold power as opinion leaders and critical agents of change, with a study demonstrating the improved effectiveness of health behaviour change programmes focused on concerns such as nutrition and fitness when provided by members of the clergy. When it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) issues such as access to contraception, a study substantiates this correlation that religious leaders can improve access to contraceptives, especially in settings where religion plays an important role in the socioeconomic fabric of society.
In this Comment, we challenge readers to question some of the bigger implications of this strategy, and how, although effective in facilitating uptake of contraceptive services, engaging religious leaders could reinforce existing power dynamics and potentially compromise women’s autonomy and decision making, especially when it comes to realising their reproductive intentions. We also worry about the continued emphasis on contraceptive uptake as the most important indicator in the global family planning community, and finally encourage the move from family planning as a siloed issue in reproductive health, to one shaped by deeper social, economic, and cultural factors.