Engagement on child-related concerns is in itself a shared entry point, as this is an area in which most religious communities are theologically comfortable and motivated. An analysis of the assessment results will reveal possible starting points for collaborative relationships with religious communities. These may seem very small initially, such as an expression of interest in dialogue or an invitation to participate in a religious event with a focus on children. It is important to recognize the potential of every point of contact for building relationships over time that will foster successful partnerships. Strong relationships are of central importance to most religious actors and are crucial for effective engagement.
While cultivating relationships is key, there are challenges if the partnership is not institutionalized. Individuals representing religious communities can change, as can staff within child rights organizations, particularly international staff (which often leaves national staff to deal with highly complex and sometime challenging situations). While individuals may have provided the entry point for the collaboration, the partnership ultimately needs to be grounded in the institutions in which the individuals work. In identifying religious actors with whom to partner it is critical to ensure that these actors be respected by the targeted communities. There may be instances were a religious actor may be open to engagement but not have the required legitimacy from his or her community.
Leaders of religious communities
Clerics, bishops, rabbis, imams, priests, abbots, nuns, shamans, etc. – as well as lay leaders and leaders of coordinating bodies and inter-religious associations – can be powerful allies in advocacy for children’s rights at the highest levels nationally and internationally. Religious leaders speak with authority on behalf of significant portions of the population, and they bring that authority and legitimacy to child rights work that may be perceived as primarily secular, particularly when the focus is on legal or political reform. It is important to identify the leadership level at which engagement is necessary for the planned programming (e.g., national, district, local), particularly with religious communities that are very hierarchical.
Partnering for advocacy on child protection legislation
Building on strong advocacy with Christian and community-based organizations initiated in Botswana in 2008, UNICEF’s support for the realization of the Children’s Act in 2009 led to strengthened faith-based partnerships and resulted in the finalization of 37 publications for 13 different religious organizations from Baha’i, Muslim, Seventh Day Adventist and Ecumenical denominations.
Source: United Nations Children’s Fund Botswana Country Office Annual Report, 2009.
Women of faith networks
Women of faith networks in any community are already undertaking efforts to care for vulnerable children and their families, including orphans, persons living with HIV and survivors of gender-based violence. For large segments of the female population, women of faith leaders are their conscience and give voice to their needs regarding reproductive health, sexuality and other topics that may be deemed taboo by male religious leaders. Many women of faith working on the periphery of formal religious structures “play important roles in their local places of worship or in their family’s religious life… [shaping] religious traditions in less obvious but influential ways.”
Youth groups are found in many religious communities and have the capacity to harness the enormous energy of young people of faith. These young people know first-hand the needs as well as the strengths of children and youth and they can work on child rights issues with authenticity. However, it is important to ensure youth groups are inclusive and encourage opportunities for marginalized young people to be involved. Youth are not a homogenous group and participation needs to provide for equality of opportunity for all, without discrimination on any grounds. There may also be opportunities for engagement with outstanding individual youth faith leaders who can be influential in bringing about change.
Faith-based organizations (FBOs)
FBOs are structured similarly to other NGOs but their efforts are grounded in the tenets and values of a particular faith. Both international FBOs – such as World Vision, Islamic Relief and Catholic Relief Services, among many others – and national or local ones can establish credibility and authority with local religious communities and, in many instances, continue to provide support beyond the duration of specific projects. Beyond this, many FBOs have locally connected operational networks that can be mobilized for response. For example, the global Caritas network for the Catholic Church and the national and local archdiocesan and other church-based structures are the means by which Catholic Relief Services carries out all its emergency and development programmes. Such networks can enable FBOs to respond in an efficient and sustainable manner and reach into communities in ways that secular NGOs often cannot. In situations of religious tension, FBOs of different faith traditions can model cooperation by working together and with secular organizations. This can have a mediating effect and facilitate responses that may not otherwise be possible.
Theologians and educators
Theologians and educators play an important role in articulating and disseminating the beliefs and teachings of religious communities and garner enormous respect. While those with very extreme or radical views can be alienating, and even perpetuate harmful practices, mainstream theologians can be a powerful force in changing attitudes and behaviours. As educators – and, in some traditions, jurists – they can examine and interpret basic concepts and principles of child rights (e.g., international law, major principles and guidance documents) and demonstrate the relevance of these to religious communities and their belief systems. They are key actors in confronting and changing social norms that are harmful to children but may be perceived to be religiously mandated by members of the community. In contexts where theologians are jurists, they can shape legal systems that uphold the rights of children.
“Multi-religious cooperation is a powerful way to engage these social, spiritual and moral religious assets to advance shared security and counter the abuse of religion. It can be more powerful – both symbolically and substantively – than the efforts of individual religious groups acting alone.”
Individual religious communities bring to every partnership an array of assets that contribute to ensuring the well-being of children. When the collective energy and resources of a number of these communities is harnessed, even better outcomes can be achieved.