When faith-based health providers and women’s needs clash

by Jon O’Brien

As the 50th Conference on Population and Development gets underway this week, I hope this article can generate conversations around how development agencies can level the playing field and best promote rights-based and impact-driven approaches to reproductive healthcare across the globe.

The scale and scope of faith-based healthcare provision in the developing world is large and growing, with important implications for what types of services are provided and what communities are served. Faith-based organizations (FBOs) now account for one-quarter to one-third of all international NGOs, and between 1990 and 2013, development assistance for health to these groups increased at a rate of 10% per year. Many of these organizations – like World Vision and Catholic Relief Services – have robust local networks and community trust, which make them valuable providers of care in resource-scarce countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, they deliver drugs on average to 43% of the population. They play an important role in delivering antiretroviral drugs to HIV/AIDS patients. One in five organizations providing HIV/AIDS services is an FBO.

Nevertheless, some FBOs do not provide the full range of healthcare services to the populations they reach, including women and people living with HIV/AIDS. Catholic FBOs are especially restrictive in having formal policies banning all modern contraception, including condoms, for the purpose of both family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention. FBOs like Catholic Relief Services often promote natural family planning methods that have high failure rates compared to modern options. They oppose the provision of safe abortion when 85% of unsafe abortions occur in the developing world.

Under the Trump administration, we can expect FBOs to increase in power and influence. Yet, because of their outsized role in the provision of healthcare, FBOs’ refusal to provide the full range of reproductive healthcare and HIV/AIDS prevention strategies leaves critical gaps in many communities that can impair overall development outcomes.

That is why we must support transparency in funding, to make sure these gaps are met by a diversified group of aid recipients and ensure FBOs do not discriminate or exclude particular populations, like sex workers and LGBTI individuals. It is also important that we recognize that women need to be empowered to negotiate with their partners about the use of contraception.

FULL ARTICLE: Gender and Development 25, 22 March 2017 – Issue 1: Fundamentalisms, by Jon O’Brien,  DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13552074.2017.1286808 ; PHOTO