Religion is one of the most important social institutions in Nigeria, with pervasive effects on various aspects of people’s lives, attitudes and behaviours due to its social function of upholding and legitimising social norms and values, including morality, and enabling many to cope with problems. Based on this premise, this paper stresses that religion is critical in tackling the fact that too many women and children still die due to complications relating to pregnancy, childbirth, or diseases, a fact that prohibits meaningful growth and progress in society. As the two dominant religions in the country, the paper examines Christian and Islamic writings and positions to see how religion can play a positive role in promoting reproductive health issues, including modern family planning, and reproductive health practices such as child spacing by using contraceptive pills or condoms, and/or traditional practices.
The first part of this paper provides an overview of the reproductive health situation in Nigeria, drawing from national statistics, followed by a brief look at the National Reproductive Health Policy and strategic framework. The second part of the paper then critically reviews each of the eight major components of reproductive health as contained in the National Policy and Strategic Framework, including concepts, services, and strategies and approaches relating to: safe motherhood; family planning; sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS; traditional practices, including female genital mutilation (FGM) and domestic violence; cancers of the reproductive system; infertility and sexual dysfunction; management of non-infectious diseases; and adolescent reproductive health. With each component, the authors outline current and historical Islamic and Christian positions on the topic, complete with relevant scripture, in simplified non-technical language. On some components, such as FGM, gender equity, domestic violence, and cancer screening, there is clear scope for agreement between religious thinking and the well-being of women and girls. However, other topics represent a significantly greater hurdle, with abortion, sexuality, and sex out of wedlock all roundly condemned to various degrees by Islam and Christianity.
The paper makes recommendations to religious scholars and institutions in Nigeria, set in the context of the duty to fulfil the Millennium Development Goals and promote family health, fight malnutrition, prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, and stamp out sexually transmitted diseases:
- Religion should present a united vanguard in the crusade against HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, and harmful traditional practices, including through an inter-faith initiative to ensure the distribution of funds only to those institutions that are willing to speak openly and truthfully about such issues.
- Religious leaders in Nigeria should mobilise inter-denominational teams to provide more informed and practical approaches to reproductive health education and prevention. The pulpit should serve as a powerful tool to advocate for all acceptable preventive methods, and for educating and empowering people on sexuality and reproductive health.
- Religious institutions must utilise their significant resources to enhance communities capacity to combat HIV/AIDS and other possible reproductive health issues by running more hospitals, clinics, and schools.
- HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns, and media coverage of reproductive health issues more generally, must include religious framing to be effective.
- Local governments and NGOs should be empowered to provide an established network through which faith-based organisations (FBOs), such as the Federation of Muslim Women Association of Nigeria (FOMWAN) and Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN), can reach communities to provide information and services to the people. FBOs are an essential component for such networks to be effective.