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Finding Common Ground: the interplay between religion and intervention » Women's Courage

Finding Common Ground: the interplay between religion and intervention

January 31st, 2013 by smuscat Leave a reply »

Keeping Context in Mind

From grassroots organizations disseminating general information about sexual and reproductive health, to targeted initiatives like FACE AIDS that focus on specific practices or diseases, the importance of educating women about healthcare seems obvious. But what happens when health education comes into conflict with religious tenets? No matter how convincing the healthcare curriculum, confronting the divine requires more than soliloquies about safe sex.

1. Dangers of ignoring religious context

Given that I fall somewhere in the ambiguous gap between agnosticism and atheism on the spirituality spectrum, I fall into the trap of religious insensitivity too often. When religious tenets conflict with science or health principles, I’m not as patient as I should be. Although such minor intolerances may only minimally impact my everyday life, this attitude scales. In the context of healthcare, perpetuating the conflict between religion and science will only weaken attempts at intervention. Due to the strong – if sometimes unfounded (as we saw in the case of Female Genital Mutilation) – connections between religious convictions and health practices, maintaining a balance between respect and intervention is vital. Unfortunately, not all programs take cultural context into account. Despite lofty intentions, efforts that conflict with deep-rooted conventions are doomed to waste resources and end in failure.

Consider the case of the Sabiny people in the Kapchowra district of Uganda, where external groups have been leading efforts in health education without success. Even after 60 years of disseminating information about the health risks of Female Genital Manipulation, the practice remains widespread largely due to a lack of cultural sensitivity. Rather than health workers attempting to work with the community to improve wellbeing, organizations are often seen as arrogant outsiders passing judgment on culture, to the extent that “one campaign was actually linked to a dramatic increase in the number of girls who underwent FGM” [1].

For similar reasons, although an important first step, legislation is often not enough to instigate change in cultural practices. “Moves should be made to gradually replace the practice but mere repression through legislation has been shown to be counter productive” [2]. Simply banning practices like FGM is not enough to change outlooks, and will likely generate community resistance.

2. Religion as a platform for healthcare interventions

External medical agendas and local religious doctrine are thus typically considered at odds. But more often than not, both work towards the same end goal of fostering personal and community wellbeing. This shared objective proves that, in the correct context, health interventions and spiritual tenets can be mutually reinforcing.

At an individual and small community level, religion already fortifies disease management and care. Personal belief in a guiding force, as well as faith-based support groups, offer potential salves for the psychological impacts of the poor health. In this way, religion serves as a coping mechanism, especially in terms of chronic disease management. In the case of HIV/AIDS, for example, “HIV’s uncertain course and terminal outcome make it a situation where people may see themselves as having little personal control, a circumstance where people often turn to religion for answers” [3].

But can the role of religion extend beyond the realm of existential comfort into real-world, pragmatic interventions? Studies of traditional interactions between religious groups and healthcare reveal that the two forces often cooperate. For example:

The contributions of religious groups to community health have also been substantial. Such groups have been effective avenues for promoting health programs because (1) they have had a history of volunteerism…(2) they can influence entire families, and (3) they have accessible meeting-room facilities [4].

3. Potential Intervention

FGM Therefore rather than sidestepping the issue, the power of religion in specific communities should be harnessed in working toward healthcare goals. In order to “achieve success in preventing the continuation of FGM/C, it is necessary to understand the forces underpinning the practice, such that information, messages, and activities can be tailored to their audience accordingly” [5]. Keeping the above discussion in mind, we might consider the following paradigm for a more effective intervention to decrease the practice of FGM in the Kapchowra district of Uganda:

  1. Religious Research – before any healthcare education or intervention program is put into action, the appropriate social science research should be conducted. If the majority of individuals connect a medically questionable practice with longstanding religious beliefs, then confronting the procedure alone will not be effective. In the context of FGM, “there is no specific support for female circumcision in the Koran…There are also millions of Muslims in India, Russia, China, Afghanistan, Turkey, Libya, Jordan, Iran, and Iraq who do not practice any form of FGM” [2]. Misconceptions about religious support for the practice must be understood before they can be dispelled.
  2. Religious education – if religious leaders can verify that FGM is not supported by religious doctrine, a dialogue between religious leaders and health workers can be established. Encouraging spiritual leaders to explain the lack of support for FGM from a religious perspective will more effectively change the minds of adherents than health advice from outsiders.
  3. Legislation – although it must be coupled with social efforts in order to be effective, legislation is necessary to provide legal grounds for protecting young girls from FGM.
  4. Intervention – if religious communities and the law condemn FGM, convincing individuals to relinquish the practice through sexual and reproductive health education will be a natural and more feasible next step.



[1] Jones, Susan D., Ehiri, John, and Ebere Anyanwu. “Female genital mutilation in developing countries: an agenda for public health response.” European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology 116.2 (2004): 144-151. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301211504003501

[2] Magoha, G.A. O., and O.B. Magoha. “Current Global Status of Female Genital Mutilation: A Review.” East African Medical Journal 77.5 (2000): 268-272.

[3] Jenkins, Richard A. “Religion and HIV: Implications for Research and Intervention.” Journal of Social Issues 51.2 (1995): 131-144.

[4] “Chapter 2: Organizations that help shape community health.” http://www.jblearning.com/samples/0763746347/46347_CH02_4849.pdf.

[5] Berg, Rigmor C. and Eva Denison. “A Tradition in Transition: Factors Perpetuating and Hindering the Continuance of Female Genital Mutiliation/Cutting (FGM/C) Summarized in a Systematic Review.” Health Care for Women International 10 (2012). http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07399332.2012.721417#tabModule.




  1. Marianne says:

    I really enjoyed reading this blog post. I thought you provided a very balanced account of the pros and cons of religious interventions available. I think your discussion of the importance of considering religious context is relevant. I get the impression that coming from a Western background, I have a tendency to completely reject the religious context within which female genital mutilation is occurring. This is not an excuse, obviously, for the practice. However, I think it is important to provide solutions within a religious framework. I would be interested to learn more about the way international organizations like World Vision, which are founded within a religious context, interact with communities that are of the same faith, but that have different interpretations of that faith. Are these organizations more welcome or are they also viewed as outsiders? I think one of the greatest challenges with religious research is that different cultures can interpret religions differently and it would be difficult to tell a particular group that their interpretation is incorrect. However, I suppose that this has to happen in order for practices like FGM to change.

  2. Linh says:

    What an interesting blog post! I’m happy that you included religious education as method of potential intervention. I’m not sure if you saw the film screening on FGM/C but there was this one specific example where the husband of a woman who had undergone FGM as a child wanted to reopen the woman’s vagina himself. When asked about the reasoning behind this, he vaguely said that somehow his religion demanded complete compliance of a wife to her husband but was unable to explain why. If the man truly did want to follow his religion, this would be an excellent case of how religious education could have been beneficial to women. In general, I agree that it is often important to educate (or remind) people what the overall goal of what their religion is and how it can help others.

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