by Emilie Weiderud, Policy advisor SRHR, Act Church of Sweden, part of the ICPF Faith Community

The need to work with religious actors to ensure sustainable development and gender equality has been widely recognised in recent years, and the global development industry has been increasingly interested in partnering with them.

Development practitioners and scholars agree that achieving gender equality must consist of joint efforts, including religious actors.

Why Engage with Religious Actors?

The reasons for engaging with religious actors within gender equality and health and particularly within SRHR/family planning are many:

84% of the world’s population considers themselves to belong to a faith or religious group and religious actors are often trusted voices within communities. Social determinants of health include the idea that norms and systems pertaining to religion are crucial elements of any comprehensive health strategy to understand how it impacts both negatively and positively.

Religious actors can also be important agents of change, for both good and bad gender equality outcomes. They can be advocates, duty bearers, service providers, and legislators. Religious actors have normative and real-life influence on the uptake, acceptability, and accessibility of preventive measures and services within SRHR.

Crucially, even though the state bears the ultimate responsibility for social protection systems such as health services, sometimes religious actors complement the state by providing social services such as education, social care, and health care.

Faith-based actors are major health providers—an average of about 40 percent of services in some contexts—sometimes complimentary to the health system operating outside of government planning processes, sometimes an unrecognized part of the system. Due to this presence and power, the potential of religious actors cannot be bypassed.

But it does not always easily transpire. According to the 2021 study “Religious actors within gender equality” by International Partnership on Religion and Sustainable Development (PaRD), research shows that addressing religion in practice continues to be largely left to personal engagement and “how many practitioners show an overwhelming reluctance to engage.”

The Immediate Challenges

When it comes to SRHR services including family planning, there are internal and external challenges that need to be highlighted and mitigated.

A study conducted in 2014 by DSW, Faith to Action and supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands presented some of the internal and external barriers that exist for faith-based organisations working in SRHR. Barriers cited by religious actors themselves were organisational, technical capacity, socio-cultural, and religious barriers, all crucial for delivering SRHR and family planning services without discrimination and with quality.

Interestingly, the most frequently cited barrier was access to resources. Organisations reported a strong track record of accessing funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment (83 % success rate) and STI Prevention and treatment (100 % success rate). However, for other areas within SRHR, success rates were much lower, namely 25% for maternal and child health, 25% for reproductive health, and 0% for family planning.

Whether these gaps are based on eligibility, that not all actors provide comprehensive services, or lack a track record that ensures better reputation and confidence among donors, was beyond the scope of that study, but nonetheless raises interesting questions that require reflection from both religious actors and donors.

Another March 2022 study, “Religion and gender in donor policies and practice,” presented some further interesting insights on this area. The report was commissioned by DanChurchAid, Side by Side Faith Movement for Gender Justice, Act Church of Sweden, and Christian Aid and conducted by the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith & local communities. This collaboration aims to increase the evidence on the faith-based sector in development cooperation.

The report reflected on how select donors, government ministries, and intergovernmental agencies (IGAs) are engaging (including partnership and providing funding) with local, national, and international religious actors on gender equality.

The report found, among other things, that all three government ministries within the study have a long history of partnering and funding religious development organisations and that institutional donors are open to collaboration, but it also could vary among departments. Only within one institution are certain funding streams reserved for religious actors and among the institution, no special funding or partnership routes for religious actors working on gender equality.

Moreover, having formal and informal partnerships with religious actors on gender-related issues did not automatically mean that there was comprehensive, sustainable support for religious actors.

In practice, an institution’s ability to partner with religious actors may be impacted/limited by its own institutional identity and that the reality of partnering is often driven by particular individuals. It was thus, often person-bound and that , “many staff members remain uncomfortable or even resistant to working with religious actors on gender-related issues, often as a result of their personal views on religion.”

To increase collaboration, evidence, and results in the field of gender equality the report had some recommendations to both governments and donors:

  • Government ministries, donors and IGAs are encouraged to challenge themselves to not automatically exclude religious actors as potential partners around gender equality and such partnerships can facilitate two-way learning that challenge all to develop and grow. The importance of ensuring more religious literacy among staff within institutions, was highlighted.
  • Institutions should consider developing the policies that will concretely motivate and enable staff to engage with religious actors and challenge the institution to not only primarily partner with large, mainstream, Christian development networks or organisations.
  • When working on sensitive gender-related issues, it is important to be flexible and able to compromise. For example, different entry points or terminology might be needed for religious actors to come on board. It may also be needed to work through other local, national, or international partners. At the same time, compromise is not always possible and government ministries, donors and IGAs should be clear on what they cannot compromise on.
  • Finally, they are challenged to embrace the complexity of engaging with religious actors on gender equality.

New Partnerships

The report also turned its analysis and recommendations on faith-based actors on themselves, as any relationship is a two-way street.

When it comes to religious actors seeking funding from and partnership, they also are encouraged to use language and terminology that are appropriate and understandable for those they are targeting, clearly showing how they fit into the bigger picture of work being done on gender.

An entry point into partnership and funding is to identify an institution’s niche area and explain, using evidence, how working with them as religious actor can promote not only their objectives, but also their reputation as an innovative funder.

The importance of presenting evidence-based case studies was particularly highlighted as important.

When seeking funding and/or partnerships, being honest and strategic is important and that religious actors themselves do not instrumentalise religion. Rather, religious actors should paint the picture of their role within a larger civil society frame, how they are one actor, providing one part of a larger solution towards greater gender equality, rather than being the sole solution.

As the funding environment can change based on the political environment, it is important that faith-based actors stay up to date. Moreover, it is important that religious actors ensure that their own organisations abide by gender equality, not just in their programming.

Learnings Moving Forward

To summarise, there are multiple learnings for both religious actors as well as donors within these reports that can help bridge the gap in evidence, knowledge, language, literacy, and trust that sometimes exists and what can be done to starts bridging those gaps. The recommendations raised in this study also mirrors that of others and can and should be reflected on and acted on to encourage better partnering.

In the end it means, as stated so crucially in the 2021 PaRD report, that actors “must acquire basic levels of religious literacy to understand the complex ways in which gender and religion interact and shape gendered-power dynamics in specific contexts.”

Religious literacy, having sound analysis, and ability to present the ways that religion and gender intersect and changes over time, is not just relevant for donors but also for religious actors themselves. Literacy entails ability to be fluent in many different languages that bridge better understanding and seeing, showing, and evidencing how religious actors can be one of those actors of change needed to be able to ensure greater gender equality.

Finally, any partnership does entail that all be aware and then honest about the possibilities as well challenges, barriers, and norms that exist, whether internal or external and whether within a secular institution or a religious institution.