Manila. Indonesian and Philippine officials have joined forces to campaign on reproductive health and family planning through an unusual conduit — religious leaders — despite the countries being known for their conservative Islamic and Catholic values.
Sugiri Syarief, chairman of Indonesia’s National Family Planning Coordinating Board (BKKBN), said the two countries could help each other by sharing their varied experiences and knowledge in reproductive health, gender mainstreaming and family planning issues.
He held up the Philippines as quite advanced in teaching its youth about reproductive health, and said that the Philippines stood to learn much from Indonesia on how to employ religious leaders in the promotion of reproductive health and family planning.
Sugiri said one of the key approaches used in Indonesia was the engagement of Islamic institutions and Muslim and lay leaders to promote family planning, arguing that once people are convinced that contraception is not against religious teachings, it would be easier to convince them to use family planning.
“The result was quite remarkable,” Sugiri said.
“From the inception of the family planning program in the early 1970s to 2007, the contraceptive prevalence rate in Indonesia has increased from 5 percent to 61 percent, and the fertility rate has dropped from 5.6 to 2.4 children per woman.”
The role of religious leaders, both in majority-Muslim Indonesia and in the predominantly Catholic Philippines, is very important, he added.
“Developing fatwa [Islamic edicts], involving religious leaders and faith-based institutions in the campaign and some form of family planning services is the [role that] Islamic religious leaders and institutions [play] in the family planning program in Indonesia,” Sugiri said at the recent signing of a memorandum of understanding in Manila between the two countries.
Jose Ferraris, a Filipino who heads the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) office in Indonesia, noted the similarities between the countries — including a history of colonization — and expressed hopes that one lesson Indonesia could impart to the Philippines was in the role of “constructive dialogue” in creating a national consensus over matters of mothers’ and babies’ survival.
No longer haram
This aspect of the joint campaign is the focus of family planning efforts in the southern autonomous region of Mindanao, a predominantly Muslim part of the Philippines.
Mufti Abdulwahid Inju, chairman of the Darul Ifta Assembly of the Philippines, said that in early 2000, many Muslims in the region disapproved of the concept of family planning and reproductive health, criticizing it for going against Islamic teaching and labeling it a Western concept.
“Some people misinterpreted the hadiths [sayings of the prophet Muhammad], and called contraceptives haram [forbidden under Islam],” Abdulwahid said.
But driven by a high number of maternal deaths and complications during childbirth, clerics in Mindanao finally issued a fatwa in 2004 stating that all kinds of contraceptives were permitted in Islam as long as they were used for the benefit of the mother and child.
Dr. Kadil Jojo Sinolinding, health secretary of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, said in 2008 that the region had the highest maternal and child death rates among the country’s 17 regions.
He said that when he took over the regional health department in 2010, he knew that addressing the problem of unsafe pregnancies and deliveries needed to be the top priority.
Mariam Daud, program coordinator of Noorus Salam, a network of female Muslim religious leaders and non-Muslim women leaders from civil society and government agencies, said the fatwa was now used as a guideline to promote family planning and reproductive health.
Unlike in Indonesia, however, the Philippine government does not promote family planning, she said.
“The Philippine government is against reproductive health for now, so the local [Mindanao] government doesn’t provide free contraceptives, just the service,” Daud said. “But right now the reproductive health bill is in debate. Maybe once it is passed the government might provide free contraceptives.”
Out in the open
Siti Musdah Mulia, chairwoman of the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace, said religious leaders have a responsibility to promote reproductive health issues and reassure people that contraception is not against Islamic beliefs.
“Islam is not a barrier for reproductive health and family planning,” she said. “There is nothing in the Koran mentioning anything against contraception. Instead, family planning is an ikhtiyar , an effort to take control of one’s own life.”
Musdah said Islam views the birth of each child as an enormous responsibility that should be discussed and planned before marriage.
She also pointed out that Islam did not prohibit the discussion of sex issues. She even encouraged parents to talk to their children as early as possible about reproductive health.
“Teach your kids that they were born with sexual organs but that God wants them to use those organs only in the corridor of marriage,” she said.
Musdah also emphasized the importance of teaching children about their own bodies and differentiate affectionate contact from abusive contact.
“When he was asked by his followers, the prophet Muhammad explained in public sermons about menstruation and so on, so it perplexes me that we don’t talk about such stuff anymore because we think it’s taboo,” she said. “As a result, we are now in the dark. We don’t know what things are allowed and what things aren’t.”
She added that conservative religious leaders who are against reproductive health education and family planning should wake up to the reality of children being sexually abused by adults because they are unaware of the boundaries of sexual impropriety.
“Look at the report by the KPAI [Indonesian Commission for Child Protection], which shows that so many children were abused, often by the closest members of their family or their neighbors,” she said.