On 16 November 2011, the Wilson Center Maternal Health Initiative convened this dialogue, in partnership with the Maternal Health Task Force (MHTF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

“Faith-inspired organizations have many different opportunities [than non-faith-based NGOs]. The point that is often reiterated is that religions are sustainable. They will be there before the NGOs get there and will be there long after,” said Katherine Marshall, executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue at the Wilson Center on November 16. Marshall noted in her opening remarks that maternal health should be an easy issue for all groups, regardless of religious tradition, to stand behind. Yet, in reality, maternal health is a topic that “very swiftly takes you into complex issues, like reproductive health, abortion, and family planning,” she said.

As part of the Advancing Dialogue on Maternal Health series, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Global Health Initiative collaborated with the World Faiths Development Dialogue and Christian Connections for International Health to convene a small technical meeting on November 15 with 30 maternal health and religious experts to discuss case studies involving faith-based organizations in Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Yemen. The country case studies served as a springboard for group discussion and offered a number of recommendations for increasing the capacity of faith-based organizations (FBOs) working on maternal health issues.

Engaging Religious Leaders in Pakistan

“When working with religious leaders to improve maternal health there are some do’s and don’ts,” said Nabeela Ali, chief of party with the Pakistan Initiative for Mothers and Newborns (PAIMAN).  Ali described a PAIMAN project that worked with 800 ulama (religious leaders) to increase awareness about pregnancy and promote positive behavior change among men.

One of the “do’s” highlighted by Ali was the need to build arguments for maternal health based on the Quran and to tailor terminology according to the alim‘s preferences. The ulama who worked with PAIMAN did not want to utilize the word “training,” so instead they called their education programming “consultative meetings.” More than 200,000 men and women were reached during the sermons and the strategy was been picked up by the government as one of the best practices written into in the Karachi Declaration, signed by the secretaries of health and population in 2009.

Despite the successes of the program, Ali warned against having unrealistic expectations for religious leaders interfacing with maternal health. She stressed the importance for having a long-term “program” approach to the issue, as opposed to a short-term “project” framework.

Behavior Change in Yemen

“Religion is a main factor in decisions Yemeni people make about most issues in their lives and religious leaders can play a major role in behavior change,” said Jamila AlSharie a community mobilizer for Pathfinder International.

Eighty-two percent of Yemeni women say the husband decides if they should receive family planning and 22 percent say they do not take contraception because they belief it is against their religion and fertility is the will of God, said AlSharie. Therefore, the adoption of healthy behavior change requires the involvement of key opinion leaders and the alignment of messages set in religious values. Trainings with religious leaders included family planning from an Islamic perspective, risks associated with early pregnancy, nutrition, education, and healthcare as a human right.

Male Participation a Key Strategy

“As a faith-based organization we believe it is a God given right to safe health care and delivery so we mobilize communities to support pregnant women to address their needs, educate families about referrals and existing services in the community,” said Elidon Bardhi, country director for the Bangladesh arm of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA).

Through female-run community organizations, ADRA educates men and women about the danger signs of labor and when to seek care. For example, many men in Bangladesh hold the belief that women should eat less during pregnancy to ensure a smaller baby is born, thereby making delivery easier, said Bardhi. ADRA addressed such misconceptions through a human rights-based approach and emphasized male participation as a key strategy, ensuring there were seven male participants for every one female.

A Culturally Nuanced Approach in Nigeria

The Nigerian Urban Reproductive Health Initiative (NURHI) is a public-private partnership that identifies and creates strategies for integrating family planning with maternal health. According to Kabir Abduallahi, team leader of NURHI, “family planning” is not as acceptable a term as “safe birth spacing” in Nigeria, so the project highlighted how family planning can help space births and save lives.

Religion and culture play an important role in the behavior of any community. The introduction of a controversial healthcare intervention (such as family planning) in a religiously conservative community requires careful assessment of the environment and careful planning for its introduction, said Abduallahi. Baseline surveys and formative research data helped NURHI understand the social context and refine intervention strategies.

Ten Ways to Increase the Capacity of FBOs

Faith-based organizations’ close links to communities provide them with an opportunity to promote behavior change and address other cultural factors contributing to maternal mortality rates such as early marriage and family planning.

Working in collaboration with FBOs and other stakeholders is critical to promoting demand for maternal and reproductive health services; however, there is limited knowledge about faith-based maternal healthcare and FBOs are often left off the global health agenda. In conclusion, Marshall noted 10 areas the group identified as areas to focus on:

  1. Move projects to programs: Projects are often donor driven and limited in scope and duration. Donors and policymakers should move from project-oriented activities to local, regional, and national-level advocacy programs to build sustainable change.
  2. Coordinate, coordinate, coordinate: Significant resources are wasted due to a lack of coordination between FBOs and development agencies. A country-level coordinating mechanism should be developed to streamline efforts not only between agencies but also across faiths.
  3. Context, context, context: A thorough understanding of the local culture and social norms is imperative to successful program implementation.
  4. Terminology is important: In Pakistan, religious leaders redefined sensitization meetings around family planning and maternal and child health as “consultative meetings” not “trainings.” In Nigeria, the culture prefers “child birth spacing” over “family planning.” In Yemen, it’s “safe age of marriage” instead of “early childhood marriage.”
  5. Most religious leaders are open and with adequate information can produce behavior and value changes. Utilizing the Quran, Hadith, and Bible can support arguments and emphasize the issue of health and gender equity.
  6. Relationship building: Winning the trust of religious leaders can be difficult and time-consuming but is necessary for opening doors to patriarchal societies.
  7. Rights-based approach: A human rights-based approach can be a very powerful agent of change for addressing negative social structures such as violence against women, but it can also create controversy. In Bangladesh, ADRA utilized the approach to educate men about nutrition, dowry and child marriage, and education of women.
  8. Networks: There is a significant need to create forums that bring together the various FBO and global development communities in order to share knowledge and enhance advocacy messages. Networks are needed to streamline resources and inventory existing research, projects, and faith-based models that work.
  9. Monitoring and evaluation systems: There is a striking lack of data about the impact and outcomes of FBOs. Increasing the monitoring and evaluation skills of FBO workers can improve evaluation systems and meet the demand for new data.
  10. There needs to be greater political will for engaging the faith-inspired community.

See a video of the event>>


  • Nabeela Ali (view presentation)
    Chief of Party, Pakistan Initiative for Mothers and Newborns (PAIMAN)
  • Jamila AlSharie (view presentation)
    Community Mobilizer, Pathfinder International, Yemen
  • Elidon Bardhi (view presentation)
    Country Director, Adventist Development & Relief Agency, (ADRA)
  • Mallam Kabir Abdullahi (view presentation)
    Team Leader, Nigerian Urban Reproductive Health Initiative (NURHI)

Moderated by

  • Katherine Marshall
    Executive Director, World Faiths Development Dialogue