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Faith leaders can change the story of contraception in Nigeria and save thousands

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By Tijani Salami

Earlier this month, Nigeria’s Minister of State for Health, Dr Olorunnimbe Mamora, said that more widespread use of family planning can reduce maternal deaths by 30 percent, saving the lives of about 18,000 women every year.

The Minister called for increased investment in family planning services and reiterated Nigeria’s commitment to increase modern contraceptive use to 27 percent by 2024. Minister Mamora further stressed that men need to be involved in family planning discussions, which I discussed in my recent article about the dangers caused by social taboos around contraception.

I warmly welcome the Minister’s leadership on this issue and pray that his calls for investment will be heeded, however, it will need more than money. Low use of modern contraceptives in Nigeria is not only due to lack of investment, but also secrecy, embarrassment and misconceptions. Here, I believe that religious leaders have the potential to stand in the gap. As highly influential leaders across society, faith leaders can help change the story of family planning and contraception, just as they did around childhood vaccinations.

As a doctor and a religious man, I regularly conduct family planning outreach activities, including among religious groups. I know that when faith leaders speak to their congregations on family planning, it has an impact. At Tawiyi Baptist Church in Bosso, Niger State, I was invited by the resident pastor to talk to families about contraception and health. These measures have resulted in a significant percentage now understanding and using modern contraception, helping families to control unplanned pregnancies and saving them a lot of stress and worry. The Chapel of Grace in Minna is an interdenominational church which has a specialised unit that counsels couples intending to marry on reproductive health, including family planning. Women in the community suffer fewer reproductive health problems as a result, and more couples are able to live comfortably and plan their families.

It is not only Christian church leaders who can play a role. Muslim clerics have been vital advocates for polio vaccination and have mobilized their communities in past decades to participate in immunisation schemes. The clerics’ support for the program helped to dispel doubts and misconceptions about the polio vaccine, eventually leading to tremendous success, even after health authorities had struggled to break through. They can also play their part in encouraging use of family planning and should be included in discussions about how to increase uptake across the country.

Evidence supports the engagement of religious leaders in improving understanding of reproductive health and use of family planning. Research by the Johns Hopkins Center for Communications Programs found that Nigerian women whose clerics support family planning were significantly more likely to adopt modern contraceptive methods. A further report by Family Planning 2020 across Sub-Saharan Africa says that Faith-Based Organizations can help to “contextualize family planning concepts and interventions by using language and approaches that resonate with the cultures and beliefs of the communities they serve”.

Faith Based Organizations have some 30 percent of the health care market in Nigeria and are therefore important actors in this space. Healthy spacing of pregnancies offers the opportunity to save the lives of millions of women in Nigeria, ensuring that all babies are wanted and have the best possible start in life.

If Nigeria is to make serious progress on its terrible maternal health record, the health profession, government and private sector must actively engage religious leaders to improve Nigeria’s use of contraception. The government is yet to take the initiative on this issue, even among those faith leaders who are already making efforts to enlighten their members and who would benefit from more support. This could take the form of training and visits by health workers and even providing contraceptive products.

I sincerely believe that most religious people are not against family planning and in my experience, religious leaders do not need to be a block to family planning. Many of them already see the benefits of contraception and I believe a significant number of would be ready to spread the message if they are called upon by the government to do so, playing their part as critical stakeholders. I urge the Minister of State for Health to speak to religious leaders across the country as part of a national campaign to increase contraceptive use. I believe he will be pleasantly surprised by the response he receives. If we all work together, we can reduce Nigeria’s tragically high rate of maternal death, reduce the burden on public health and create a more sustainable, healthy, and prosperous future for all Nigerian children.

Dr Tijani Salami is a physician, sexual and reproductive health expert and founder of Sisters Caregivers Project Initiative, which provides medical and social support for women and advocates for an end to child marriage and maternal malnutrition. Twitter: @DrSalamiTijani1

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