Religion, women’s health and rights: Points of contention and paths of opportunities



This document reviews and highlights some of the diverse narratives, teachings and experiences linking religious discourses to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and reproductive rights (RR). Taking culture and religion into consideration when designing and implementing public health policy and programmes is essential; cultural traditions and religious beliefs and practices are linked to sexual and reproductive health in a number of ways. It calls for a renewed focus on culture and religion aims to move beyond stereotypes often evoked around issues of reproductive health.

The document frames its discussion on SRH and RR through international agreements and covenants on human rights. It is intended for basic informational and training purposes and to support broader discussions around SRH and RR. However, it is not an exhaustive review – there are several contentious issues, such as LGBTI stigma and discrimination and adoption, which are not discussed here.

  •  Responsible parenthood and healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies are widely accepted in every religious tradition.  However, positions on methods of family planning differ. Particular concerns and common opposition centre on a number of issues, including: the provision of services and information to unmarried couples and the moral and practical dimensions of health disparities, which has led some religious communities to strongly favour universal healthcare.
  • Viewpoints on abortion differ widely among the world’s major religious traditions and by socio-cultural contexts of their followers. Global survey data indicates that the majority of those surveyed in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and predominantly Muslim countries in Asia and the Middle East consider abortion morally unacceptable. Attitudes on abortion often influence how differing legal regimes address the issue, despite the State’s role as duty-bearers in realising RR as a human right and the expectation laid out in the UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251.
  • Child and forced early marriage and violence against women and girls transcend religious, cultural and ethnic boundaries. The former is most common in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. No religious traditions sanction the latter, but violent practices are often carried out or justified in the name of religion.
  • No religious texts support FGM, but many , including families that support the practice, assume that it is required by religious teachings. Addressing FGM requires a change local social norms and as such,  religious leaders have a crucial role to play in explaining that this is not part of religion.

Positive faith-based initiatives exist, but are not well known or documented. Examples include: The Faith to Action Network, an interfaith advocacy group for family planning that works at global and regional levels; Afghan Mullahs promoting birth spacing on national TV after a project survey found that their disapproval was grounded in safety concerns rather than religion; the creative campaign of “Abused Goddess” in India to address cultural and religious attitudes that enable VAW/G; and the Latin American Council of Churches affirming that sexual and reproductive rights fall under the context of human rights.

Religion is an influential aspect of culture. However, other cultural dynamics influence interpretations of religion and religious practices. Insisting on a rights-based approach to programming that overlooks the dynamics of various religious positions can impede a more nuanced approach to realising these rights. There is a need to systematically monitor and evaluate ongoing programmes, partnerships and results which include religious and cultural actors, as well as to continue to expand development actors’ own literacy about religious dynamics that underpin the range of issues encompassed by SRH and RR. Further research could be done to address the gaps on a wider range of religious traditions, and their practical implications at a country and community level. Further, additional questions for the DHS and other survey instruments would produce better data and allow policy makers to assess changes taking place over time.


UNFPA & NORAD. (2016). Religion, women's health and rights: Points of contention and paths of opportunities. New York, USA: UNFPA.