Faith leaders and organizations have a significant influence on the norms, attitudes, and beliefs of African society. Faith leaders ought to provide a welcoming environment where young people’s issues about sexual and reproductive health (SRH) are acknowledged in order to better safeguard adolescents from the vices of teenage pregnancies, Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), HIV, and child marriages among other things.
In the line of our work, we have baseline data pointing to a lack of sufficient intergenerational discussions about Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (ASRHR) between adults and adolescents. We have realized that, even if we are collaborating with faith leaders to shape this conversation, religions institutions also represent a context that discourages intergenerational dialogue.
In most religious institutions, the most popular view of sexuality is complete abstinence, which is based on holy texts that forbid fornication, adultery, and early marriage. What we now know, however, is that young adolescents and youths within churches are engaging in sexual activity despite the existence of religious texts. They avoid seeking out or participating in ASRHR-related conversations because of fear of the strict rules that have been put in place. In addition, there is a social construct among parents that is sometimes referred to as “a culture of shame.” In this aspect, when physical evidence of one’s child engaging in sexual activity emerges, it typically brings shame upon the family; as a result, families have returned to the traditional story of not even tolerating having a dialogue about sexuality.
Research suggests that the sexual activity of young adolescents has increased geometrically. Unfortunately, young teenagers have been forced to turn to unreliable sources of information such as social media, pornographic websites, and other unreliable and misinforming sources because of the lack of a sustainable intergenerational discussion. In light of this, Faith to Action Network, Brot für die Welt, and Act Ubumbano have made significant progress in fostering intergenerational discussions in South Africa.
We have brought communities and faith leaders together to debate ASRHR concepts. Faith leaders acknowledged that it has been unpleasant to talk about SRH matters in houses of worship. One of the project participants argued the following during a consultation process:
“…It is taboo to have conversations around sexuality and these conversations tend to defile a holy space because they contravene what the holy scriptures say…” (Anonymous)
However, through the project, faith leaders have been able to create safe spaces where young people may now talk about SRH without feeling judged. They emphasized the need of locating the points where culture and religion intersect in order to have these intergenerational conversations.
An extremely innovative approach was used in this process, which involved a simple mapping of the intersections of religion and culture and how this improved or negated an intergenerational conversation. In addition to an increase in community demand for these conversations to continue, we have documented a sizable number of benefits from the project. To ensure that discussions start, we have been successful in influencing champions who are now working to conduct internal advocacy and reform within various religious institutions.
Additionally, the traditional obstacles that made having these conversations unacceptable are progressively being pushed aside. Since then, the conversations—which are done in complete confidence—have produced interesting dynamics, and in certain cases, we have seen places of worship start to make internal institutional changes to enable intergenerational dialogue.