“Issues of SRHR are a sensitive matter for discussion for religious leaders because, over time, the language of SRHR has been distorted. As faith leaders, we believe we can speak a faith-based language to address challenges of SRHR” Rev. Canon Evatt Mugarura when speaking at the 2022 Inter-Faith Dialogue on young people’s health.
When discussing issues pertaining to Sexual Reproductive Health, let alone that of young people and adolescents, it is difficult for one to appreciate how a religious leader would play an active part in this. In a society such as ours that is strongly rooted in faith and culture, people seek intrinsic value and counsel from this culture from which they draw spiritual solace and direction in their lives. The same culture and faith, is also responsible for shaping and directing the values, attitudes, behavior, and actions of people in society.
However, as the times have continued to change, as we recognise the tragic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the SRHR of many adolescents and young people, and as we move into what many of us are terming the “Post COVID Era”, we have come to appreciate that the only approach there is to harnessing better health for young people is a Multi-Sectoral Approach. One of the sectors that we recognise at the SRHR Alliance, as one with the power to influence the health of young people, is religion. We strongly believe that faith leaders can influence positive behavioral change among young people to improve their sexual reproductive health and rights and livelihoods.
“Faith leaders have the power to influence the Sexual Reproductive Health of young people, as well as all people.”
How can this be done and why is it important?
In the same effort to foster community development and well-being of individuals in society, we recognize the transformational role religious leaders play in society by administering opinion leadership and providing spiritual support to build resilience and positive behavioral strategies. We also acknowledge that faith structures, operations, and leaders provide a trusted source for society members to receive factual information and positive messages that can improve health related decision making.
In addition, religion covers a large percentage of faith channels, administrative, and operational structures in Uganda such as schools, worship structures, governance structures, and health centers that gather crowds of people, especially young people. These national to grassroots structures coordinate youth activities, education, fellowships, as well as health outreaches and messaging. It is in the same gatherings and spaces that we seek to implore religious leaders to remind the young people of the importance of observing good health practices, and the dangers in doing otherwise or choosing to live a risky life, such as contracting HIV/AIDS, Sexually Transmitted Diseases, teenage pregnancies, perpetrating violence, among many others.
“Faith leaders are versatile, research-grounded, trained health practitioners, and great influencers who meet people and are mindful of the context and fragility of their people. This is a power we need to harness.” Mr. Ssemakula Henry, Senior educationist – Guidance and Counseling, Ministry of Education and Sports.
Collaborative support from faith leaders, and the distinctive religious structures they represent, have the capacity to build onto and create an enabling environment for young people to understand and enjoy their sexual reproductive health and rights. They also have the jurisdiction to influence cultural institutions, schools, parents, followers in the faith, and the general public to become more cognizant and protective of our young people’s lives especially concerning their SRHR.
“We can ‘Islamize’ and ‘Christianize’ toolkits and frameworks concerning the Sexual Reproductive Health of young people. Putting these frameworks and adopting aspects within them that can be translated and understood in the context of our faiths will allow us to make a great impact on the health choices young people make, discouraging many to turn away from risky behaviors.” Sheikh Muhammad Ali Aluma, Head of social services – Uganda Muslim Supreme Council.
With combined efforts and commitments from key stakeholders, Civil Society Organizations should ensure to adopt a faith-based action plan focused on capacitating faith-based structures, leadership, and collaborations by integrating sexual reproductive health and rights information in their operations. In execution, linking religious leaders to other key stakeholders, contextualizing SRHR in the faith perspectives, and training grassroot and mainstream faith leaders to champion SRHR issues will facilitate mass action to positive behavioral change of young people.
There is a place for SRHR at the Pulpit.