Reverend July Musyani of Mabiri CCAP in Mzimba has “seen enough” of people dying from sexual and reproductive health (SRH) conditions.
“My church has lost many young people to early marriages, teenage pregnancies and other preventable complications. With this, I preach in favour of sexual reproductive health and rights with authority,” he says.
Musyani commends faith-based organisations for fronting religious leaders as the face of N’zatonse, an SRH rights project funded by the German Government through the German Development Bank (KfW).
The initiative primarily targets young people aged 10 to 24 years harnessing the influence of duty-bearers, particularly leaders and traditional leaders, who are custodians of cultural and religious values.
Their work seeks to ramp up demand for and access to quality SRHR services and information as well as sustainable behavioural change among the youth and rural populations.
“Politicians come to the people only during election campaigns, but we live with the people every day. We are the ones who see young girls dying from early pregnancies. So, we have to educate them on their sexuality,” Musyani says.
To him, preaching SRHR messages is not promoting sin, but “protecting our children”. N’zatose has opened his lips to keep preaching the gospel of SRHR.
The clergy are driven by the desire to end early pregnancies, child marriages and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, in their communities.
They are using the pulpit to preach the importance of modern family planning to their flock.
“Including religious leaders in the campaign has proven to be effective because of the respect we command in our community as messengers of God. People look up to us. They listen to us,” Musyani explains.
Father Gerald Bwemba of Sharpvale Catholic Parish in Ntcheu is a member of the pastors fraternal in N’zatonse.
The priest credits the project with uniting leaders of different faiths to collectively promote the welfare of the youth and their communities.
“The church is here to stay. But it is people that make the church. If they are not healthy, they cannot participate in religious activities of the church and we can’t have the church,” he says.
The pastors’ group includes both Muslim and Christian leaders who appreciate the benefits of making young people aware of their sexuality.
SRHR issues in Malawi have long been a taboo—often spoken of in whispers and behind closed doors, not from the public pulpit.
Yet, the youth have been dying, dropping out of school and living with life-changing disabilities due to early pregnancies and marriages.
A consensus is rising among the clergy that the youth need to understand their sexuality and sexual issues to look after themselves.
Sheikh Professor Pinifolo of Mtocha Mosque in Blantyre says it is the role of religious leaders to enlighten the youth by sharing accurate information on issues of sexuality.
“We need to demystify these sexuality issues for young people to understand how to handle themselves, so, we religious leaders have an influential role to play,” he says.
According to the Reverend Clemence Mphambano of the Malawi Assemblies of God in Ntchisi District, there is nothing unbiblical about SRHR.
The youth in the project use age-appropriate booklets with clear illustrations to share information about physical changes girls and boys experience as they grow, menstrual hygiene, sexual intercourse, abortion, family planning and childbirth.
But each issue is accompanied by scriptures about it.
For all the youth clubs in Rumphi, Mzimba, Neno, Ntchisi, Ntcheu, Thyolo, and Blantyre, the booklet is a virtual dictionary of their work.
According to Lucius Malowa, a Catholic faithful, integrating religion in an SRHR campaign is helping young people understand the messages and look after themselves better.
The member of Mtapadothi Youth Club in Traditional Authority Mphuka, Thyolo, says: “We believe in the word of God. These messages are accompanied with what God says. Now I feel well guided. I have verses in the Bible to guide my sexual life.”
N’zatonse project is implemented through a consortium approach led by Population Services International, ACT Alliance, Danish Church Aid (DCA) and Norwegian Church Aid (NCA), Ministry of Health and Family Planning Association of Malawi (Fpam).
DCA and NCA are the ACT Alliance lead organisations implementing the project in partnership with Blantyre Synod Health and Development Commission, Catholic Health Commission, Evangelical Association of Malawi and Livingstonia Synod Health Department.