Coaching Religious Leaders to Become Effective Family Planning Advocates in Senegal
Contributors: Fatimata Sow and Annette McFarland
Local religious leaders can significantly influence the perceptions, attitudes and decisions about family planning in their communities, making them ideal candidates to be engaged as family planning champions. As a result, reproductive health programs in most of French-speaking West African cities have engaged religious leaders in training workshops to encourage them to become family planning advocates, given their significant influence. While the focus of these workshops had been on improving the family planning knowledge of individual religious leaders – which is important – they did not effectively support them to serve as advocates.
The Challenge Initiative (TCI), however, does coach religious leaders in how to become effective advocates for family planning and adolescent and youth sexual and reproductive health (AYSRH) in their communities. This advocacy coaching applies not only to interactions with their congregants, but also those with their fellow religious leaders. TCI supports them in developing action plans for how to best engage in these discussions with their colleagues.
TCI has found this approach to be successful because most religious leaders are more comfortable when they consult with their colleagues before taking up a position that may lead to criticism within their religious communities. Bringing leaders together under the coaching approach helps them see things differently so they can discuss the issues, identify gaps and explore how religious texts can support efforts to promote family planning and childbirth spacing under the theme of responsible parenting to support their congregants.
Recently, about 85 religious leaders – from both the Muslim and Christian faiths – participated in 10 coaching sessions in four TCI-supported communes in Ziguinchor, Senegal: Ziguinchor, Thionk Essyl, Oussouye and Bignona. At the end of the sessions, the religious leaders created action plans for spreading family planning messages, including radio programs and public talks. In fact, in Ziguinchor, over 15 imams immediately began discussing family planning and childbirth spacing on the radio on the Friday before prayer the same week as the coaching session.
Commenting on TCI’s coaching approach, Imam Moussé Fall from Commune of Dakar shared:
The innovation of the TCI approach lies in the way we religious leaders now approach issues related to FP. …. As a master coach having benefited from learning TCI’s coaching technique, I am able to affirm that it is really a great innovation on several levels. Firstly, the religious are immediately engaged and become champions of the cause because they are given a space where their fundamental principles are respected in a rewarding exchange. Secondly, with regard to religious leaders who are often skeptical and/or have a complex about talking about FP, we focus on the health of women and young adolescents and close with discussions about family planning.”
Convening religious leaders to be coached as a cohort equips them with the knowledge, attitudes and peer support to promote family planning in their communities and places of worship. Imam Moussé Fall now speaks about the themes he was coached on by TCI – such as responsible parenting, girls’ education and parent-child dialogue on sexuality – during his appearances on popular local TV and radio shows. He explained the significance of this of this approach:
…Family planning is not explained by religion, but the role and responsibility of religious leaders around issues related to women’s health, youth and religion remain important and millions of people depend on it. Religious leaders have many roles to play in the community. In some countries, they seal religious marriages and provide advice to the bride and groom. Following my training in TCI’s coaching technique, I personally became aware of this contribution, which helped me to adapt my sermons and interventions to each occasion to talk about family planning. This approach undoubtedly allows religious leaders to equip themselves with innovative tips to talk to families as well as to communities by more easily addressing issues directly related to family planning.”
TCI in Francophone West Africa is rapidly scaling this approach and has now coached 115 religious leaders in Senegal and 30 religious leaders in Niamey, Niger.