“When you enable a family to be able to time and space their children, you actually improve the overall health of that family,” said Dr. Alma Golden, the Deputy Assistant Administrator of USAID’s Bureau for Global Health, at a recent Wilson Center event on the role of faith-based organizations in family planning. Faith-based groups are an “irreplaceable asset,” said Dr. Golden, when it comes to fighting stigma and marginalization and promoting positive health behaviors.
What Is Healthy Timing and Spacing of Pregnancies?
Evidence shows that delaying, timing, and spacing pregnancies leads to the healthiest outcomes for women, their newborns, and their families. This approach—known as “healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies”—includes the use of modern contraceptives, as well as natural family planning and fertility awareness methods.
“We are all more and more aware, every year, of how critical the first ‘thousand days’ are during the pregnancy and the first two years of life for a child,” said Dr. Golden. Space between pregnancies gives women enough time to recover, gives the child enough time to develop, and makes it possible for the mother to exclusively breastfeed the child. For the mother, delaying first pregnancy until the age of 18 and increasing space between pregnancies is key to positive health outcomes.
Focusing on timing and spacing helps healthcare workers “engage conservative populations, and have a better conversation with mothers and families to talk about the wellbeing of the child and themselves,” said Dennis Cherian of World Vision. “It resonates well with faith leaders and the faith community,” because it is aimed at improving the health of mothers and their babies.
Faith-Based Involvement in Family Planning
“Increasing people’s ability to improve their lives through healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies requires—it doesn’t just slightly benefit from—partnerships with faith-based organizations and faith leaders,” said Victoria Jennings from the Institute for Reproductive Health (IRH).
Faith-based organizations have played an important and historic role in promoting the health of communities. “In many African countries, church-based health facilities…provide a significant percentage of healthcare services,” said Jennings, “but family planning is often lacking.”
By working together with faith-based organizations, family planning providers can inspire ministries of health to collaborate, increase access to family planning, improve communication between couples, and engage men. “When faith-based organizations are involved in family planning, uptake increases,” said Jennings.
“Faith leaders are able to deal with the barriers that prevent women from accessing contraceptives,” said Dr. Margaret Njenga of World Vision, Kenya, in a video screened at the event. World Vision’s “Channels of Hope” program “uses faith leaders and faith groups to address local health-related issues, advocate against harmful practices, and advocate for quality services,” said Dr. Alfonso Rosales of World Vision U.S.
First launched to respond to the HIV/AIDS crisis, the program has grown to include sexual and reproductive health messages. An evaluation of Channels of Hope programs in Northern Ghana and Western Kenya showed that the uptake of contraceptives increased significantly in surveyed communities after Muslim and Christian faith leaders adopted family planning messages, said Dr. Rosales.
Faith-based groups are also embracing new technologies and innovations. Following the launch of Dot, a new mobile phone app that aims to help women avoid unintended pregnancy through fertility awareness, “faith organizations were the first ones to step up and say, ‘How can we support this?’” said Jennings. “I know that we will be relying on these partnerships going forward,” she said.
In Senegal, Population Reference Bureau (PRB) has piloted innovative ENGAGE presentations on family planning with faith leaders. “We developed the presentation to support Senegal’s ongoing efforts to significantly reduce its maternal and child mortality rates through reproductive health and family planning strategies,” said Jeff Jordan, PRB’s President and CEO.
“We found that the ENGAGE approach has also been particularly effective in the faith community,” said Jordan, “it helps to bring faith leaders in as family planning champions.”
The Future of Healthy Timing and Spacing
Christianity and Islam both support the health of the mother. However, there are still “a lot of misperceptions. Dialogue is how we move forward,” said Jennings. Whether we are talking about modern contraceptives, or natural family planning and fertility awareness, messages related to family planning must “come from within the community,” said Jennings.
And while there are many opportunities for collaboration and partnership, there are also areas of tension, including “abortion, access to family planning among unmarried youth, and disapproval of some family planning methods,” said Jennings. The challenge is in finding common ground, and effectively communicating in collaboration with faith leaders.
“Faith communities can help bridge tensions in a way that no one else can,” said Beth Schlachter, Executive Director of Family Planning 2020. “We’re working around the world with—and among and for—communities of faith, and so respect for their values…has to be paramount in our approach. We see faith partners as champions, as community leaders, as service providers, and as clients themselves and the very people we seek to serve.”
This article originially appeared at https://www.newsecuritybeat.org/2018/05/faith-family-planning-healthy-timing-spacing-pregnancies/.