Engaging religious leaders to improve health outcomes
Religious leaders can be critical partners in influencing health behaviors. On October 8, 2020, USAID held the first summit to focus on religion in development. It sought to collect data to inform relevant technical assistance for the Agency’s offices worldwide. SHOPS Plus chief of party in Afghanistan, Soumitra Ghosh, presented project work with the Afghan Social Marketing Organization (ASMO) to engage imams and policy makers to address barriers to adoption of family planning and other key health services.
In Afghanistan, religious prohibition is a prominent barrier to uptake of family planning. Misconceptions around family planning, household water disinfection, and use of ORS andzinc for uncomplicated diarrhea, as well as a lack of male support adds to challenges women face when considering seeking family planning or other health behaviors. SHOPS Plus addresses behavior barriers by engaging influential groups. Its work with mosques is based on the idea that imams, given their respect in the community and regular interactions with men, could help address the barriers and change the attitudes of worshippers.
Ghosh presented how SHOPS Plus and ASMO leveraged the imams to underscore the significance of birth spacing, safe drinking water, and the timely administration of ORS and zinc through sessions conducted by trained facilitators and imams. The messaging aims to increase knowledge and foster social support to improve attitudes about and adoption of healthy behaviors. The team held over 2,300 meetings in 107 mosques in Kabul City, reaching over 24,550 individuals. Positive feedback from numerous imams sparked a letter form the Afghanistan Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs that expressed support for the interventions, and allowed the intervention to be scaled up to an additional 200 mosques.
This work is particularly relevant to the strategic religious engagement dialogue because it directly aligns with USAID’s process of collaborating with religious communities and partnering with faith-based organizations to advance shared development goals. In a country like Afghanistan where religion is an important force in political discourse, changing social attitudes, and health behaviors, SHOPS Plus and ASMO harnessed this important component of civil society engagement to improve healthy behaviors.