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Religious leaders commit to child survival

© UNICEF Kenya/ 2012/ Serem
Boys from Mama Fatima Children's Home recite a Kiswahili poem at the Faith for Life conference in Nairobi, Kenya.

By Daisy Serem

NAIROBI, Kenya, 26 June 2012: The boys from Mama Fatima Children’s Home, dressed in bright yellow and green tunics, stand in line, swaying in harmony as they recite a powerful Kiswahili poem on child and maternal health:  Ndugu zangu fahamuni afya ya mama mwili (My brothers and sisters understand the health of a mother); Ni kitu chenye thamani kwa mwenye kuzingatia (Is of great value for those who keep this in mind); Na we Mama fadhili afya ya mtoto wako (And you, Mother, should value your child’s health).

Their words resonate with the congregation of religious leaders they are addressing. As the men and women of different faiths listen to the children’s voices they reflect on their role as spiritual and moral leaders in ensuring the survival of children and women.

The hundreds of religious leaders from the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu faiths were attending a recent conference with the theme: “From Promise to Action on Maternal and Child Survival”, in Nairobi, Kenya.

The conference, also attended by religious scholars from Africa and Europe, was organized by the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya in partnership with the Government of Kenya and UNICEF under the Faith for Life initiative with the common agenda of taking action in preventing the deaths of children and mothers in Africa.

Grim statistics on child mortality

The highest rates of child mortality are still in sub-Saharan Africa – where one in eight children dies before the age of five, more than 20 times the average for industrialized countries (one in 167) – and South Asia (one in 15), according to the estimates on child mortality generated by the UN Inter-agency Group on Child Mortality Estimation.

In Kenya, 74 out of every 1,000 children born alive die before their fifth birthday, mainly from preventable diseases such as diarrhoea, pneumonia and malaria. The maternal death rate is equally high, with more than 6,000 women dying from pregnancy-related complications each year.

Most of these deaths can be prevented if mothers attend four ante-natal clinics and deliver with the assistance of skilled health workers. This way, any complications and risks are addressed in good time and emergency obstetric care provided to save the lives of the mothers and babies.

UNICEF works with the Government and religious leaders to ensure children and mothers access information and services, such as immunization, to help save their lives.

“We know that, because of the central role of religion in society, religious communities are uniquely positioned with their values, moral influence and extensive networks to promote the survival, development and protection of children within and without their congregations,” UNICEF Representative to Kenya, Mr Marcel Rudasingwa, told the congregation.

© UNICEF Kenya/ 2012/ Serem
Janet Atieno with her twin girls and son in Kisumu, Nyanza Province

Faith for life

Twenty-five-year-old Janet Atieno is a beneficiary of such work by religious leaders in her Legio Maria sect, who encouraged her to attend antenatal clinic. Despite being diagnosed with high blood pressure, she delivered her twins successfully at the Nyanza Provincial General Hospital. The babies, who were premature at birth, were incubated at the New-Born Unit for specialized care.

Now at home with her healthy little ones, Janet urges all mothers to ensure that they receive proper antenatal and postnatal care.

“I had faith that my children would be fine, especially since I went to the hospital. Had I had delivered at home with the help of a traditional midwife, my children and I would not have made it,” she says.

The Kenyan Vice President, Mr Kalonzo Musyoka, who officiated at the opening of the conference, reminded Kenyans that family care begins at home.

“Even as we decry the poor skills in health care, we must not tire to remind our people that being faithful in enforcing breastfeeding and proper nutritional habits are key to good health at the household level.”

At the end of the consultations, the religious leaders were united in their resolve to contribute to the survival of children and mothers in Africa.

A Promise to Action

They committed to devote their spiritual, moral and social assets in support of:

• Comprehensive advocacy and action for the health and wellbeing of our children and mothers;
• Changing beliefs, attitudes, and behavior for safer and healthier life for all people;
• Engaging and forming partnerships with all relevant stakeholders - intergovernmental, governmental, civil society, and private sectors – to act on our promise to children and mothers;  
• Ensuring service provision to meet the demands created through our efforts.

They also pledged to develop concrete multi-religious advocacy and action to address child survival and maternal health. These include incorporating messages and information about child survival and maternal health into their prayer and worship services, religious festivals and childhood education and religious rites; changing beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that reject evidence-based health interventions for children and mothers, such as immunization, exclusive breast feeding for six months and nutrition; using mass media to disseminate messages on child survival and maternal health; speaking out and taking action against all forms of violence and abuse against children and women within and beyond their communities; advocating against harmful traditional practices that infringe child survival and maternal health; and enhancing involvement of men in the physical, moral and spiritual development of the child.

The religious leaders asked African governments to allocated 15 per cent of their national budgets to health as agreed at the 1999 Conference on Maternal and Child Survival in Abuja.



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