Cultural and religious beliefs play a key role in the formation of perceptions and attitudes. When looking at issues or challenges that affect people we, as advocates, can sometimes forget to take into account cultural beliefs that play chief roles in behaviour. This weakens our understanding of these issues and as a result the solutions we proffer can suffer.
With the availability of appropriate reproductive health knowledge and services, reproductive health amongst women and young people will enjoy tremendous improvements. With more accurate knowledge many more people can embrace the usefulness and importance of contraceptives and family planning in protecting themselves sexually.
One of the major challenges of improving family planning cover in Africa is the existence of many conflicting cultural and religious beliefs. These are a hindrance to maximizing effective family planning services for women and families across the continent.
I discussed family planning with some friends lately who all happen to adhere to strong Christian values, one of which is ‘no-sex before marriage’. The conversation we had together highlighted some of the important socio-cultural issues that hinder the success of family planning initiatives in Africa.
Although abstinence can be beneficial and effective in some cases, many religious people prefer to ignore the obvious realities of the health and welfare benefits of using effective family planning. These must not be neglected.
This particular conversation with my friends started when I returned from an event where we discussed the sexual and reproductive health of young people. I explained the topics talked about at the event, particularly how young people were advised to live responsibly and ensure they only make smart sexual choices that won’t damage their health. I went further and explained that young people were also advised to always use a condom to protect themselves from STDs and unwanted pregnancies; unwanted pregnancies increase the risks of unsafe abortions. At the close of the event we were all given condoms.
That didn’t go down well with some of my overzealous Christian friends, who feel that only abstinence should be preached to young people. They did not see the benefits of also encouraging the safe and proper use of condoms.
The overly religious and sentimental may risk perpetuating dangerous falsities that are damaging to the health and well being of young people.
Maybe I should make it clear that I deeply agree with encouraging young people to abstain from sexual activities until marriage, but that opinion and message that it sometimes portrays can be very unsafe if our explanation and rational ends there. We cannot assume that every young person who has been encouraged to practice abstinence will adhere to that advice. Despite this, many religious leaders and parents would seem to prefer to endanger the lives of young people by not balancing the information and education they provide, particularly by not teaching young people about the benefits that family planning can bring.
The reality is that people often in the best position to guide a child towards healthy sexuality frequently are not forthcoming in that regard. Many lazily hope and rely on the religious laws, beliefs and “morals” to guide their children, rather than facts and scientific information.
Parents must understand their role in helping young people (especially adolescents) to practice responsible sexual behaviours. Specifically how they can help them to make wise choices. Reports show that teenagers who live in stable homes (those where parents interact well with their children and provide them with accurate information about their sexual health) are more likely to refrain from sex than those in families where such conversations do not exist.
Additionally, children who are exposed to such interactions with their parents and guardians tend to postpone intercourse until the time when they can manage the consequences better. Where such parent-children interaction abounds, kids understand from the start that it is a lot better, both physically and emotionally, to keep to only a few partners and to constantly use contraceptives until they are ready to have a child.
In the fight to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and to reduce the rate of unsafe abortions, I don’t believe that we can rely on behavioural change as a method to protect young people. Although many religious and cultural bodies would have us believe that we can.
There is great benefit to working towards a behavioural shift, we must note however that it doesn’t happen automatically. Occasionally individuals may fall back into old habits. When looking at sexual health in particular, one occurrence of unprotected intercourse can lead to contacting an STD or falling pregnant. Unwanted pregnancies are more likely to lead to unsafe abortions and in the worst-case scenario severe complications or the ultimately death of the mother.
I understand that being faithful to one’s partner and abstaining from sexual activity for the unmarried is an effective solution to combat contracting an STD or falling pregnant but we must embrace all possibilities and methods by which to safeguard young people. We must advise them on the correct use of condoms and contraceptives so they can protect themselves.
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