Religion and Family Planning – an inherent contradiction?

Religion and Family Planning – an inherent contradiction?

In many parts of the world family planning remains a taboo and appears incompatible with prevailing religious beliefs. On the occasion of World Contraception Day, we examine the myth that religious leaders and actors categorically oppose family planning – by taking a look at our work on faith and demography in Africa.

Today, 1.4 billion people live in Africa. United Nations (UN) population experts estimate this number will reach 2.5 billion by 2050. This may sound alarming, but population growth in Africa has already slowed significantly over the past decades. Thirty years ago, women in Africa had an average of six children. Today that number is down to four. And according to the UN projections, in 2050 women in Africa will have on average fewer than three children. But these projections can only become reality if living conditions for all Africans continue to improve, and if more women become able to make self-determined decisions about if, when and how many children to have and to use modern contraception.

Contraception remains out of reach for many

Family planning programs, which provide information and access to modern contraceptive methods, have long become common across Africa. Many countries, including Ethiopia, Malawi, Morocco, and Rwanda, have incorporated family planning into their national health programs. Nevertheless, unmet need for modern contraception remains high on the continent. Fifty-eight million African women aged 15 to 49 want to avoid a pregnancy but – due to a range of reasons – are not using a modern method of contraception (such as the pill or condoms) or are using a less reliable traditional method. As a result, each year 43 percent of pregnancies in Africa are unintended.

Religion and family planning are compatible

Nothing is more central to a woman’s ability to lead a self-determined life than her freedom to make informed decisions about the number and timing of her children. Though there has been significant global progress in expanding the availability and accessibility of contraception over the past decades, family planning remains taboo in many places. To make further progress in expanding the acceptability of contraception, the solution may lie with a group of actors of who have historically been considered ‘the opposition’ of family planning: faith-based organisations. In many parts of Africa, religious leaders and actors enjoy a high level of trust. For example, on sensitive topics related to family size or sexuality, three quarters of West Africans heed the counsel of their priest or imam.  

And contrary to widespread assumptions, the Koran, for example, does not explicitly reject family planning. Meanwhile, many Christians advocate for women’s ability to make self-determined decisions about using contraception. Our study “Faith in action – How religious organisations facilitate demographic change in West Africa” found that in many countries in the region, religious organisations, networks, and individual faith leaders are already engaging with these issues by, for example, compiling and disseminating religious arguments in favour for family planning. For instance, they argue that the health of mother and child should be the absolute priority – and could be jeopardized by insufficient time between pregnancies. They also promote an understanding of responsible parenthood as having only as many children as one can provide for.

Religious organisations and faith leaders as partners

Religious authorities and actors can make a significant contribution to increasing the acceptance of family planning in their organisations and communities. In contrast to secular actors, Islamic, Christian, and other faith actors can reach people who hold conservative religious views. For the time being, religious leaders who openly advocate for family planning in Africa remain a minority among their peers. Therefore, the priority should be tapping into the existing potential and winning over more faith actors by using language and approaches that respect people’s religious beliefs. To start, secular partners of faith-based organisations can integrate and involve them more closely in their family planning strategies. Mutual exchange between religious and secular organisations is central to this effort. Ultimately, involving more religious communities and clergy as partners in family planning is a win-win for everyone, but especially for African women – and men.  

Further Reading


Colette Rose

Project Coordinator International Demography

Phone: +49 - 30 31 01 95 91


© Berlin-Institut

Catherina Hinz

Executive Director

Phone: +49 30 - 22 32 48 45


© Berlin-Institut

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