Should religious organizations be included in public health efforts to promote sexual and reproductive health in developing countries? This question was recently posed in one of my classes while discussing the links between adolescent religiosity and sexual behavior and HIV prevention in Ghana.
The association between religion and sexual behavior and health is complex. On one hand, religion can help people develop a moral code that promotes healthy sexual behavior by creating norms that premarital sex, multiple partnering, and infidelity are sins that are to be avoided. Religion can also create social networks that facilitate resource sharing and create social support to promote health.
On the other hand, religious values can conflict with scientific evidence showing that condom use can prevent disease transmission and that the pill can prevent pregnancy. Religious leaders can withhold information on how to prevent STI/HIV and unplanned pregnancy by preaching that "abstinence is the only way" -- when we know that it is not. It may be the BEST way -- but it is misleading to say it is on the only way.
The role of religion and faith-based organizations in promoting public health activities is quite controversial. Religious institutions have long been charitable service providers to poor, vulnerable populations. I think this work must and should continue. However, a class discussion spurred a few thoughts (or questions) on the topic that I thought were relevant.
- How does religion influence health? Is it spirituality (believing in something greater than yourself)? Is it the community and social support brought about by being religious?
- What is the difference between religion promoting "behavioral control" and religion promoting freedom to act in ways that result in greater self-control?
- Does public health miss out on opportunities to reach a critical mass when it does not engage with faith-based organizations? (in other words: are there people who might only receive health communication information through religious leaders?)
It seems to me that collaboration with faith-based organizations is warranted in certain contexts, especially where religious affiliation and engagement is high. Many churches (note: not only churches, but also other religiously-affiliated institutions) around the world are engaged with HIV/AIDS-related care and many more are teaching their congregations about safe sex and sexuality. I love to see faith-based organizations offering holistic care and opening their doors to all people, no matter what their religious beliefs.
I also think that there are many circumstances where religious institutions are not reaching the poor and most vulnerable. Where this happens, public health professionals must communicate their health messages through other governmental or private organizations.
What do you think about the role of religion in public health? Are partnerships with faith-based organizations a good idea?
Next Steps: We must think critically about the opportunities and limitations of working with faith-based organizations in public health; however, we also must not discount their influence and authority in communities that we serve.