Family Planning (FP) has been defined as getting children by choice not chance. It involves making a conscious decision on family size and spacing between children. Studies show that male involvement positively influences continued use of family planning methods.
In Kenya, family planning is frequently perceived as a woman’s concern, and family planning programs most often target women. Yet men have greater decision-making power over household matters including health care due to gender dynamics.
Religious leaders have been identified as influential advocates for health as they are well trusted in the communities they serve and are able to reach the smallest family units and individuals. Equipped with appropriate messages and skills, religious leaders will not only empower their communities and congregations, leading to increased uptake of health services, including family planning, but are also able to advocate with policy makers and influence key decisions.
Ustadh Rashid Osman, a religious leader from Kilifi County, was one of the 54 faith leaders from six counties in Kenya trained in family planning, gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS advocacy through the Christian Advocacy for Family Planning in Africa (CAFPA) project.
The project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through Christian Connections for International Health, engaged religious leaders to advocate for community and policy maker support for family planning, gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS to drive positive policy change. CHAK implemented the project from 2013 to 2021.
Ustadh Rashid says he started off as an ordinary Imam, completely unaware of the effects of gender-based violence, unplanned families and HIV/AIDS on his community. He however got involved in advocacy when he was selected as a family planning champion by the National Council for Population and Development, a government body.
In 2017, due to demand for reliable health information in his community, he thought of forming a CBO for Imams to discuss issues around reproductive health with regard to Islam. Muslim Intervention for Health Education (MIHE) has been instrumental in bringing health messages to the community.
The faith leaders’ training by the CAFPA project, gave Ustadh Rashid additional motivation to continue addressing reproductive health issues in his community. A key challenge for him, however, was getting men involved in FP and reproductive health decisions in their families. Whenever he called meetings to discuss FP and reproductive health only women showed up.
Meanwhile, Ustadh Rashid continued receiving invitations to seminars and workshops to discuss reproductive health issues in the Muslim community. He also continued attending capacity building sessions and holding community meetings in mosques. During the meetings held weekly, the community talked openly about the issues they were facing at home. It became apparent that women were suffering gender-based violence. Early pregnancy was a challenge among the youth that affected families and about which men as the family heads were very concerned. The community therefore began to actively seek solutions to these challenges.
To address the problem of male involvement, Ustadh Rashid began by speaking to men in the mosque where he served as Imam during Friday sermons and prayers. He told them that they were responsible for their households, according to Quran teachings, and needed to get involved in decisions affecting their families. After prayers, he asked the men to stay and discuss HIV/AIDS and teenage pregnancies. The men responded positively because these issues were affecting their households. During these discussions, he introduced family planning and gender-based violence which were regarded as taboo topics in the community.
Ustadh Rashid worked closely with health workers from local health facilities and other religious leaders in the CAFPA project to give the right information to his community. To reach even more mosque congregations in his locality, Ustadh Rashid structured Rabai Sub-County Imams, over who he is in charge, into four wards. He has continued to reach out to Imams in each ward with FP, HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence messages and tasks them with getting the information out to the men in their congregations. Each ward has between nine and 13 Imams. Initially, the Imams were against FP and needed to be convinced that it was allowed in Islam. Utadh Rashid held meetings with the Imams and their congregations, so the community could participate freely in the discussions.
He has also used mainstream media, mainly radio, as well as social media to advocate for FP, HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence. Through radio stations that target the Muslim community in Kilifi County, including Radio Rahma, Msenangu FM and Boss Radio, Ustadh Rashid has been able to pass FP, HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence messages and encourage men’s participation.
He has formed three WhatsApp groups, two targeting Imams and one targeting football coaches to act as advocacy platforms for the health issues affecting his community. Through the WhatsApp platform, Ustadh Rashid is able to address the Imams’ concerns and answer any questions they may have.
Additionally, Utadh Rashid has used Facebook Live, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to engage his audience. His social media posts are taken positively by the younger audiences who follow him while FP concerns raised on these platforms are appropriately addressed.
Following the training by the CAFPA, Ustadh Rashid felt more empowered to speak about FP, HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence in his community. Additionally, by working closely with health workers from local facilities, he has also been able to reach youth and women in addition to the men.
The Imams working under him in Rabai County have been empowered to speak out on FP and reproductive health issues in their communities, including encouraging men’s participation in discussing and finding solutions to the challenges facing their families.
During the men’s meetings held after Friday prayers, the men agreed that FP was getting the number of children one could comfortably bring up. Further, it was agreed that according to Quran teachings, a woman needed two years to breastfeed a child while couples were advised to take an additional year to attempt conception. This added up to child spacing of three years, removing the idea that FP was not accepted in Islam.
The big question then became which FP methods were allowed in Islam apart from breastfeeding. This opened the door for discussions and it was agreed that non-permanent methods were allowed and acceptable. This view is backed by Muslim scholars whose studies and writings Ustadh Rashid constantly refers to in his teachings, in addition to supporting Quran text.