And now for some facts about women's reproductive health.
Approximately 800 women a day die during pregnancy and childbirth. For every woman who dies, approximately 20 more experience infection, disability, or injuries. The rate of mortality and injury of women during pregnancy and childbirth varies hugely between women living rich countries and poor countries, with the bottom being Afghanistan where one in 11 women will dying during pregnancy and childbirth. One in three women are married by the age of 18, one in nine by the age of 15, meaning that we are not just talking about women, but often about young girls.
An estimated 200 million women want to delay or avoid pregnancy but don't use effective family planning and the demand is expected to rise 40 percent by 2025. Of the 210 million pregnancies occurring each year, nearly 33 million are unintended. These lead to approximately 21.6 million unsafe abortions, causing some 47,000 deaths annually.
I learned these challenging figures when I was invited to moderate a panel called Faith and Family Planning at the Women Deliver conference that is happening right now in Kuala Lumpur. The goal of the conference is to advocate for the health and well being of women and girls across the globe in all areas of society, but especially in the area of pregnancy and birth.
It is crucial to talk about the role religion can play in the effort to empower girls and women in the area of family planning -- especially given that close to 90 percent of all people alive adhere to some religious belief, and that in rural areas of many developing countries health care is provided by religious organizations, or not at all,
However, the role of religion in the reproductive lives of women is also fraught and touches on many of the flash points that religious communities are grappling with today. These include the problem of gender inequity -- specifically in leadership roles; the authority of science within the religious worldview; and the agency of individuals, especially women, to develop and exercise individual conscience as weighed against the often mandated expectations of the community.
There is no question that religious influence can often seem adverse to those of us who believe that women's reproductive health is a fundamental human right. But what is also true is that this is a question about which there is an active debate within religious communities and that there is no one religious point of view. It is also true that even the most conservative religious communities can play a part in improving the health of women and girls.
Speaking to a packed room at the Faith and Family Planning panel, Dr. Pauline Muchina, who is a theologian and works at UNAIDS, helped clarify the question that often plagues any conversation on religion and family planning. "Almost everybody believes in family planning," Dr. Muchina explained, "but what we argue about is the method."
For instance, the Catholic Church hierarchy believes in 'natural' family planning that will help the couple to avoid pregnancy, but does not believe in contraception devices or pills. (Although what the people in the pews believe is an entirely different matter).
Dr. Muchina admitted that faith communities have both empowered and undermined the power of women and girls and emphasized that we need to talk about human sexuality along with faith and family planning: "We are all created in the image of God and we know that sex is a gift from God, yet sex can be dangerous or fulfilling depending on access to information and health services and things like contraception and condoms."
"My primary concern is to save lives. God has give us knowledge and technology to improve our lives through science. Are we going to throw condoms out? We are resistant to science in questions of sexuality, but when you you have a heart attack you go to the operation room -- you are willing to accept science then."
The Christian ethicist Dr. David Gushee explained that the evangelical Christian community has both deficits and strengths to offer the effort for comprehensive family planning for women and girls. The strength is that in the Christian view every life is infinitely sacred -- and that includes the lives of women. However, that ethical framework has been used largely in opposition to abortion instead of empowering women. That said, Gushee informed the room that evangelicals are not against contraception per say, as long as they are used inside of marriage.
For Middle East women's right activist Dr. Wajeeha Al-Baharna, sharing decision about family planning between husband and wife is a fundamental place to start. Dr. Baharna, a Muslim, insisted that Islam says that women and men should have equal say in the size of their families and timing of having children.
While these positions might not seem radical to a secular mindset, even small advances in how religious communities view reproductive health issues can have huge positive effects on the lives of women and girls on the ground.
Perhaps nobody is better able to speak about this than Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund.
When I asked him about how faith is playing a positive role in his work at UNFPA, he told me a story that happened when he was running the HIV program in Niger. They started with a 10 percent knowledge base about HIV, everyone was in denial and they tried everything -- TV, radio, theatre, and the knowledge just wasn't coming up at all. Then he went up and spoke to the head of the Muslim community (about half of the population) who agreed to go on camera and talk about HIV and the results were dramatic. Suddenly everyone wanted to get involved.
Dr. Osotimehin explained:
"If you are to engage religious communities whether Muslim, Christian, Animist, you need to understand the context, and respect it. You know they have limits, they have red lines and you respect those red lines, but you work in the middle ground where you think you can make a difference. In UNFPA now, we have religious organizations that work with us because the work we do is not abstract, it is about saving women and girls's lives. There is no religious leader in the world that will tell me that they would rather have women and girls die."
When asked if the UNFPA also has 'red lines' in dealing with religious communities on matters of reproductive health Dr. Osotimehin told me:
"It's a matter of give and take. UNFPA works in more than 150 countries around the world. You can imagine the varying social and cultural context in each of those countries. And we have made some major progress in some of those places. In Niger the use of family planning was like 5 percent, we set up something called 'The Husband School' that had religious leaders, community leaders and civil servants -- all men. We took them through all the issues. In three years we increased the contraception use from 5 to 20 percent. And the Nigerien public is almost totally Muslim.
I can't think of any country where it is total pushback and we can't do anything. It's about navigating it. Our red line is that nobody will stop us from saving the next girl's life."
Dr. Ingrid Mattson is Professor of Islamic Studies, founder of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program and director of the Macdonald Center for Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, CT. She earned her Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from the University of Chicago in 1999. From 2006-2010 she served as President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA); she previously served two terms as Vice-President. She is the first woman elected to those positions. Dr. Mattson was born in Canada, where she studied Philosophy and Fine Arts at the University of Waterloo, Ontario (B.A. '87). From 1987-1988 she lived in Pakistan where she developed and implemented a midwife-training program for Afghan refugee women.
The Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in June 2006. She serves as Chief Pastor and Primate to the Episcopal Church's members in 16 countries and 110 dioceses. She joins with other principal bishops of the 38 member Provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion, seeking to make common cause for global good and reconciliation. Over the course of her nine-year term, Bishop Jefferts Schori is responsible for initiating and developing policy for the Episcopal Church and speaks on behalf of this Church regarding the policies, strategies, and programs authorized by General Convention. She has been vocal about the Episcopal Church's mission priorities, including the United Nation Millennium Development Goals, issues of domestic poverty, climate change, and care for the earth, as well as the ongoing need to contextualize the gospel.
Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins serves as General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada. As General Minister, she is general pastor of the 700,000-member denomination, responsible for representing the wholeness of the church, for reconciling differences, and for helping the church retain its clarity of mission and identity. As General President, she is the chief executive officer for the denomination, responsible for overseeing the work of the church's various structures. She holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Phillips Theological Seminary, a Master of Divinity from the Yale Divinity School, and a Bachelor's Degree in French and Economics from Butler University.
Sharon Salzberg has been a student of Buddhism since 1971, and has led meditation classes and retreats worldwide since 1974. She teaches both intensive awareness practice (insight meditation) and the profound cultivation of lovingkindness and compassion in a non-sectarian, inclusive framework. She is a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. Her newest book, Real Happiness, The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program was published in January 2011. She is also the author of The Force of Kindness, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness and A Heart as Wide as the World, and co-author with Joseph Goldstein of Insight Meditation: a Step-by-Step Course on How to Meditate.
Ruth Messinger is the president and executive director of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international development organization providing support to more than 200 grassroots social change projects in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Ms. Messinger is also a visiting professor at Hunter College, teaching urban policy and politics. Prior to assuming her position at AJWS in 1998, Ms. Messinger was in public service in New York City for 20 years. She served 12 years in the New York City Council and eight years as Manhattan borough president. She was the first woman to secure the Democratic Party's nomination for major in 1997. Among her numerous accolades, Ms. Messinger has been named one of the 50 most influential Jews of the year by the Forward for the last five years. Ms. Messinger graduated from Radcliffe College and received a Master of Social Work from the University of Oklahoma in 1964.
Rev. Joyce Meyer is one of the world's leading practical Bible teachers. A New York Times bestselling author, her books have helped millions of people find hope and restoration through Jesus Christ. Through Joyce Meyer Ministries, she teaches on hundreds of subjects and has authored over 80 books, which have been translated into over 80 different languages. More than 12 million of her books have been distributed around the world, and in 2007 more than 3.2 million copies were sold. Joyce holds a PhD in theology from Life Christian University in Tampa, Florida; an honorary doctorate in divinity from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and an honorary doctorate in sacred theology from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona.
The Rev. Dr. Suzan D. Johnson Cook is a United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, pastor, author, and presidential advisor. She has had a distinguished career in public service, having served as a White House fellow on the Domestic Policy Council and worked with a Cabinet Secretary. She participated in the historic Obama Presidential inauguration at the National Cathedral. Rev. Suzan Cooks is also the president and CEO of Charisma Speakers Inc. She was a television producer with NBC and ABC and also served with CBS. She is the author of three bestsellers, Moving Up, Live Like You're Blessed and Sister Strength.
Sister Carol Keehan is the ninth president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association of the United States (CHA). She assumed her duties as of October 2005. Sister Carol has worked in administrative and governance positions at hospitals sponsored by the Daughters of Charity for more than 35 years. Sister Carol has held influential roles in the government of a variety of health care, insurance, and educational organizations. She is a representative to the International Federal of Catholic Health Care Associations (AISAC) of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Health Care and serves on the board of Catholic Relief Services, Baltimore.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) also known as the LGBT synagogue, and is regarded as one of the most important rabbis in America. Under her leadership, CBST has become an important voice in Judaism, in the worldwide discourse on the nature of religious community, and in the movement to secure basic civil rights for gay people everywhere. Prior to joining CBST, Rabbi Kleinbaum was Director of Congregational Relations at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC, from 1990-92. Rabbi Kleinbaum is a recipient of the Jewish Fund for Justice Woman of Valor Award. She is a graduate of the Frisch Yeshiva High School and Barnard College and was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Anju Bhargava is the only Hindu American appointed to President Obama's Inaugural Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and was the only Indian-American to serve in the Community Builder Fellowship, President Clinton's White House initiative. She is the Founder of Hindu American Seva Charities, which is now becoming a national movement for Hindu faith-based community service programs addressing social issues. A Vedantic teacher, she strives to combine philosophy and practice from a contemporary view and is active in interfaith collaboration. She was a founding member of the New Jersey Corporate Diversity Network, is the President of Asian Indian Women in America (AIWA) and a Trustee of Council for a Parliament of World Religions.
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