Religious And Cultural Leaders

Chiefdom System in Sierra Leone

Worldwide, culture provides the rationale for the continuation of many commonplace practices. In Sierra Leone, in particular, Women Win Programme Partners experienced how essential it is to embrace the chiefdom system and develop a sense of buy-in among local leaders. This refers to the Paramount Chiefs and Mami Queens not only identifying with the purposes and goals of the sport programme but also developing a sense of ownership. Thus, in Sierra Leone, as an act of respect, Women Win visits the chiefs/queens and engages with them about our work and mission. Involvement and promoting buy-in with all stakeholders is vital for success and it is something Women Win value in all of the countries in which we work. Women Win believes that the challenge that confronts us today is to respect and appreciate our diverse and dynamic cultures and develop ways to embrace cultural practices positively so adolescent girls can fully realise their rights; sexual or otherwise.

The majority of world religions take positions on sexuality based on morality. At times, these positions can strengthen a girl’s life skills and information base. At other times, religious mandates and traditions are burdens and barriers to girls’ achieving their full SRHR. A study on young people in south-eastern Nigeria, the vast majority of whom are Christian, found that young people commonly situate their understandings and explain their behaviours in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in terms of religion (which can either increase of decrease their risk of contracting HIV/AIDS).

In some cases, young people believe that if they and their partner are both religiously devout, their relationship is considered risk free. Behaviour that goes against religious moralities is perceived in terms of sins rather than as health risks.

As such, intervention strategies may be severely limited if they ignore the extent to which religion, health, sexuality and morality intersect in people’s everyday lives. Depending on the context, it may important that public health programmes and sport programmes learn how best to harness religious beliefs and institutions in order to help adolescent girls access their SRHR.83 Optimally, a sport organisation would enlist the support of religious and cultural leaders and assume the position of allies in the effort to improve girls’ SRHR. Recognising that these leaders might have opposition to the education and experience shared at a programme, it is at least important for programme designers to understand what influences their beneficiaries are experiencing based on religion.

Useful Example: Imams for Women’s Rights
There are over 250,000 mosques in Bangladesh. Islamic leaders (Imams) play a pivotal role in influencing behaviour and beliefs. Since its establishment in 2005, PHREB, a human rights organisation that uses sport to address violations against girls and women, has run a programme specifically integrating religious leaders in their STOP Violence against Girls programme. While just 14 “Enlightened Imams” participated the first year, 234 participated in 2009. PHREB reports seeing these leaders take a stand against all forms of violence against women at home, at school, at work and in the street. Specifically, the Imams are teaching people to read the Quran with different eyes – trying to make them aware that, in Islam, women should be much more respected than they tend to be in Bangladeshi culture.