Elisabet le Roux
Brenda Bartelink
Publication Date
October 1, 2017

Stellenbosch University (le Roux), University of Groningen (Bartelink)

"[T]his study represents a novel and timely consideration of the role of faith in the perpetuation and/or discontinuation of HTPs [harmful traditional practices], with important lessons for policy makers and development practitioners."

From the Joint Learning Initiative (JLI) on Faith and Local Communities, this synthesis report describes the UK-Government Department for International Development (DfID)-funded project, in part, through Tearfund: 'Working effectively with faith leaders to challenge harmful traditional practices'.

The study included:

  1. "Literature review focusing on the most prevalent HTP and faith actors
  2. Selection of case studies for a multi-case study investigation conducted with international faith-based organizations working with faith leaders to address HTP
  3. Online survey to provide a more comprehensive scope of the knowledge gathered on HTP and FBOs role"
  4. Two presentations of study results, at the Sexual Violence Research Institute, September 2017, and at DFID, November 2017, accompanied by three briefs addressing most prominent themes. 

The methodology above led to five case studies of Consortium member organisations' work on HTPs including female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), child and early marriage (CEM), honour-related violence, and son preference. The case study organisations were: Tearfund, Islamic World Relief (IRW), World Vision International (WVI), ABAAD, and Christian Aid (CA). These studies used a combination of document review and in-depth interviewing.

The online survey involved four international networks and resulted in 65 responses from faith-based organisations (FBOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), as well as researchers, members of faith groups or communities, civil servants, and inter-government agency workers.

Key findings include the following:

  • The use of the term "harmful" in the acronym HTP was found to be problematic; whereas the naming of the practice was less likely to create resistance in communities.
  • The continued perpetration of a practice was found to involve a complex interaction of culture and religion, along with class, race, ethnicity, and economic and political dynamics. Engaging faith leaders includes countering existing beliefs and practices and engaging their influence for the good.
  • As stated in the study, two approaches that appeared effective were a public health approach and a theological approach. Raising awareness of sexual and reproductive health consequences of practices with faith leaders as a shared concern for the well-being of women and girls opens space for conversation and reflection. Adding the theological approach opens discourse and a framework understood as authoritative. Rethinking and re-envisioning practices as equality of God's creation offers a powerful and scriptural tool. Faith organisations with religious authority and trust can engage theologically with faith communities. Additional strategies for FBO leaders include:
    • Addressing the practices as expressions of broader structures of injustice and violence, including patriarchy as a driver.
    • Engaging faith leaders in ways that empower them as community champions.
    • Engaging all levels of the faith hierarchy.
    • Forming faith leadership (and inter-faith) networks around a shared concern. 
  • Small discussion groups meeting repeatedly was reported to be effective - usually with a structured curriculum and skilled facilitator using sensitive language to build trust and safety, and often a theological context, (e.g. bible studies), sometimes managed by men's organisations connected to women's groups.
  • The lead organisations emphasise a range of community engagement on a range of social issues, not just changing one practice in a faith-based context. Diverse interlocutors from the community and from various faiths, traditional and cultural leaders, women, youth, survivors, health experts, and volunteers were potentially effective interlocutors.

The study concludes with a summary of recommendations:  naming the specific practice of focus using contextually appropriate terminology, focusing on challenging violence and gender inequality, engaging a diversity of religious leadership using a public health and theological approach while working with each faith hierarchy, and using small group discussions as part of broader community-based approaches.


JLI website, December 26 2017.