Civil society partnerships

Overview on partnering with religious communities

Several key elements of the Convention on the Rights of the Child - the most widely ratified and comprehensive legal instrument for the protection of child rights- reflect values shared with the world’s major religious traditions. These include:

  • A fundamental belief in the dignity of the child.
  • An emphasis on the family as the best place for bringing up children.
  • High priority given to children and the idea that all members of society have rights and duties towards them.
  • A holistic notion of the child and a comprehensive understanding of his or her physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs.  

Aside from the potential benefits that religious actors bring to partnerships, spirituality and religion can have a profound influence on children’s development and socialization and have the potential to reinforce protective influences and promote resilience. The beliefs, practices, social networks and resources of religion can instill hope, give meaning to difficult experiences and provide emotional, physical and spiritual support. When child rights efforts are grounded in the protective aspects of religious beliefs and practices in a community that encourages and enriches the spiritual and religious life of each child, the impact can be far-reaching.

In spite of the positive roles religious communities can play, it is important to acknowledge from the outset that there are often concerns about partnering with them as very real problems and challenges exist. For example, there may be apprehensions that faith-based organizations will pressure aid recipients to convert or will only provide aid to those with similar religious views or practices. There are also reservations about over-stepping religion/state boundaries. In addition, some child rights violations have been associated with religious communities and their values or practices. As religion is one component of a dynamic interaction between social and other cultural factors, some attitudes and behaviours that are understood to be religious may actually be more characteristic of other social and cultural norms. These distinctions are important as unacceptable practices that have their roots in other cultural values can be challenged and changed by religious actors themselves. There remain, however, valid concerns about some religious actors whose approaches and practices are so far out of line with child rights principles that partnerships would potentially undermine the integrity, neutrality and ability of organizations working to achieve children’s rights with equity.

At the same time, religious communities also have concerns about partnering with child rights organizations. For example, some have reservations about working within secular structures and being co-opted or used to achieve secular goals.  There are also suspicions for some religious communities about the language of rights contradicting core beliefs and forcing religious communities to compromise on their values. It is essential to understand these concerns, as well as why religious communities would want to partner with child rights organizations.

Partnerships are most likely to be productive where there is mutual understanding, respect, trust, open dialogue and shared priorities. Experience in working with religious communities has highlighted the importance of child rights actors having adequate knowledge, skills and attitudes for effective and constructive collaboration. It is important, for example, to understand the immense complexity and diversity of religious communities. Even within particular religious traditions there is a contextualization of moral theology, its interpretation and implementation into action, and a diversity of perspectives among their leaders that needs to be understood to identify entry points for dialogue and partnership around even the most sensitive issues. Ultimately, partnerships should contribute to children’s well-being by building on the assets of religious communities, as well as learning from them to shape programme priorities. In many contexts where child rights organizations work, religious beliefs are a significant factor in determining community attitudes and behaviour. Programmes need to understand these dynamics (whether positive or negative) and take religious factors into account in their theory of change. Within such contexts, the question is not whether to engage with religious communities, but how.

It is also important to be aware that the distinctions between religious and secular structures are not always clear cut, given the important role religion plays in the lives of many individuals, including government officials and civil society actors, working within secular institutions. There are also people working within UNICEF and other child rights organizations for whom religion plays an important role and they can serve as a bridge to better understand and engage with religious communities.

 


 

 

Role of religious communities

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