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No More “Harmful Traditional Practices”! Gender Activism and Faith Leaders in International Development

Date:02 May 2018
Author:Religion Factor
No More “Harmful Traditional Practices”! Gender Activism and Faith Leaders in International Development
No More “Harmful Traditional Practices”! Gender Activism and Faith Leaders in International Development

Researchers from the University of Groningen and the University of Stellenbosch recently concluded a one-year study on the role of faith leaders in challenging gender-based violence and gender inequality.[i] The study, which was funded by the UK Department for International Development[ii] and carried out by the Gender-Based Violence Hub of the Joint Learning Initiative on Local Faith Communities, was entitled “Working effectively with faith leaders to challenge harmful traditional practices.” It explored faith leaders’ roles in challenging gender-based violence and made recommendations for how the faith dimensions in development work can be taken seriously (rather than merely instrumentalised). Building on a recent post on this blog, the problematics around the framing of ‘harmful traditional practices’ are explored in the context of their consequences for development practice.

“Faith leaders need to be empowered, to teach them so they don’t go to the other side,” says Grace, a church member in a rural area in Mid-West Kenya. During a focus group discussion facilitated by the authors, she shares her experiences of challenging female circumcision.[iii] Her community has organised an alternative ‘rite of passage,’ supported by some pastors and counsellors, so as to prevent girls from undergoing circumcision. But it has been hard to convince parents and church leaders, because female circumcision is often seen as a must in the community. “How can that be, [when] it is a cultural practice?” Grace asks, suggesting that church leaders should be more critical towards cultural practices that may conflict with their religious values. She answers her own question, stating that faith leaders are so ingrained in their cultural context that they sometimes uncritically support or legitimize the procedure. Nevertheless, she feels this is not an excuse. Faith leaders, she argues, are a crucial component of any attempt to end female circumcision.

Gender activism and the development sector

February 6th is Zero Tolerance Day, an annual day of advocacy against female circumcision that is supported and celebrated from New Yorkto Nairobi, Cairo to Rotterdam. Two decades of world-wide activism against the practice have, in many ways, shaped the understanding of female circumcision as an issue that affects women and girls’ equality, rights, and bodily integrity. In recent years, the issue of early and child marriage has also gained attention as a rights issue, due in large part to the successful campaigns of organisations such as Girls Not Brides.

In the International Development and Humanitarian Sector, female circumcision and child and early marriage are also referred to as ‘harmful traditional practices’ or ‘harmful cultural practices’ (see Brenda Bartelink’s previous post on these terms). While these terms have been used for many decades, they have become particularly salient in international development since the publication of The Inter African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children in 1995.[iv] Emerging out of a growing interest amongst European development agencies over the past two decades in the role of religion in development, our 2017 research project investigated the role of faith leaders in challenging these ‘harmful traditional practices’ (the term was chosen by the UK’s Department for International Development, which commissioned the research). This research was led by the Unit for Religion and Development Research at Stellenbosch University, in collaboration with the Centre for Religion, Conflict and Globalization (CRCG) at the University of Groningen.

The study focussed on five organizations (Tearfund, World Vision International, Islamic Relief Worldwide, Christian Aid and ABAAD) that work with ‘faith leaders’ to challenge harmful traditional practices. Faith leaders were broadly defined as women and men recognized by their faith community, both formally or informally, as playing authoritative and influential leadership roles within these communities to guide, inspire or lead others (of faith). Four of the case-study organisations are so-called faith-based organisations (FBOs), while the fifth has no religious affiliation. In the following, we will briefly discuss the most important study findings, while outlining some particular problematics in the focus on ‘harmful traditional practices’ as well as faith leaders in the international development sector.

The role of faith, faith communities and faith leaders

‘Faith leaders are sleep(ing) giants. They are not doing much [about female circumcision] now, but if they wake up, they can change it totally. Look what happened with Ebola here. With Ebola we had a game change when faith leaders came on board, it really changed things, it started reducing. So that is why I think we have to have faith leaders on board. It will be key.’

Like Grace, Engela, a project officer, based in Sierra Leone, is convinced that faith leaders can contribute to addressing practices such as female circumcision (interview June 27, 2017). In the international development sector, religion has often been seen as hampering women’s and girls’ human rights. But informed by their work in local communities, the case study organisations reported that although religion is experienced as a contributing factor to practices that harm women and girls, it is not the causal factor. A complex interplay of religion and culture, but also class, race, ethnicity, and economic and political dynamics are involved in the perpetuation of the practice. Case study findings suggest that religion is used in various ways to justify cultural beliefs and practices, as is illustrated in the vignette above. Yet, when faith leaders hold the position that their particular faith does not actually condone or demand such practices, they sometimes remain silent because of the power relations in which cultural expectations are embedded. The study also showed that responding to harmful gender practices requires engagement with faith communities and faith leaders. As illustrated in the examples of Grace and Engela, our interlocutors stated that involving faith leaders is not just a matter of engaging their influence for the good, but also countering some of their existing beliefs and practices that may support and facilitate practices that are harmful. The five organisations have all developed methodologies and approaches to engage with faith leaders, two of which stood out as critically important and effective if combined– a public health approach and a theological approach.

The space for engagement with faith in development

A focus on women’s health is often criticised by gender activists, because it emphasizes the health needs of women and girls rather than empowering them to exercise their rights. Yet, our interlocutors emphasized that it is important to share public health information, because some faith leaders may lack the basic sexual and reproductive health knowledge that is relevant to understanding why certain practices are physically harmful. Mabad, an advocacy and policy specialist based in the UK, emphasized how faith leaders change their perceptions when learning about the health consequences of female circumcision:

‘So particularly in countries like Egypt, you know, it’s like a no brainer, ‘Oh, it’s harmful, it shouldn’t be done then’. Because [in] Islam, fundamentally, protection of health and life is primary (June 22, 2017).’

Raising awareness of the health consequences of such practices creates a shared concern with the health and well-being of women and girls and opens up space for conversation and reflection. In addition, the four faith-based organisations included in this study always combine public health information with a scriptural/theological approach. This allows these organisations to engage faith leaders in a discourse and framework which they understand and respect as authoritative. A female survey participant, working for an FBO in Africa and the Middle East, stated:

‘I’ve found that backing into the rights from a faith perspective is more transformational, less confrontational, and more sustainable. The way I describe it is that we ask: What does God say about you/women/men/violence/protection value of children? [versus] What does the UN say in these areas?’

In the process of theological engagement, sacred scriptures are used to rethink and re-envision certain practices in terms of the equality of God’s creation. In this way, sacred scripture can be a powerful and even indispensable tool in challenging and transforming unequal and unjust structures and practices.

The study highlighted a particular strength of faith-based organisations working to challenge violent gender practices. Because of their faith identities, theological engagement by faith-based organisations is permitted and trusted by faith leaders. While non- faith organisations can (and are advised to) engage with faith leaders in their work on challenging harmful practices, they lack the authority to engage on the issue theologically, unless they partner with a trusted faith actor. One should note, however, that a single FBO cannot necessarily facilitate such engagement with people of all faiths, as the organisation in question has to have the religious authority and trust to be able to engage theologically with a particular faith community. This form of engagement with faith leaders and faith communities also presses researchers and policymakers to consider faith in the context of development beyond the instrumental and narrow roles in which it is often only considered in a predominantly secular field.[v]

The ‘harm’ in ‘harmful traditional practices’

‘… we really had a pushback from the traditional leaders from that community when they heard us talking to the number of ‘harmful traditional practices’. And you know, they basically made an argument that there is no such thing as a harmful traditional practice: “What it is, is first of all you people from the outside, you are non-Tsonga people. You come in and you vilify our traditional practices because you don’t understand them. So don’t talk to us about harmful traditional practice.” … (W)e stopped using that terminology because we realised it was shutting doors for us instead of opening doors (June 23, 2017).’

Sandra, a senior programme officer based in Zimbabwe, was one of many interlocutors who pointed at particular problematics in using the terminology of ‘harmful traditional practices’ in their work within local communities. At community level, the term was used rarely, if at all. This is because it creates resistance and hinders the process of engaging people in local communities to challenge injustice and violence, particularly against women and girls. Rather, an integrated approach is preferred, which addresses all of the varied factors – such as gender constructs, poverty, and patriarchy – that lead to practices that harm women and girls. When directly and exclusively addressing a specific issue, it is preferred to name the specific practice, rather than use the general term ‘HTP’. While phrased somewhat more pragmatically, these findings resonate with the academic debate on the problematic nature of the term, highlighting how it enforces colonialist discourse and has certain biases around religion (cf. a previous post on The Religion Factor). Our interlocutors in the five organisations reported tension between the critique of the term emerging from grass-roots experience, and the frequent usage of the term in policy discussion in the international development sector. One of the critical questions emerging from our research is the role development organisations have or should have in voicing grassroots critique in order to transform international discourse to become more inclusive.


The following key recommendations aimed at policymakers and practitioners were formulated based on this study:

  • Do not use the term ‘harmful traditional practices’ when working in communities.
  • If a specific practice is being addressed and needs to be identified, do not generalise but rather name the specific practice, using the terminology considered contextually appropriate.
  • Policy, programming and projects should focus on challenging violence (e.g. gender based violence) and gender inequality, rather than HTPs. This allows for context-appropriate programming and projects that acknowledge gender inequality and violence as problems common to all societies (and not just non-Western ones). It also does not hide the gendered nature of violence.
  • Comprehensively addressing violence will require engagement with religion.
  • A public health approach should form part of engaging faith leaders on gender-based violence. Religious leaders may shape their understandings of these practices on alternative ontologies of sex and reproduction that do not take the health consequences into account.
  • Engaging with faith leaders should include a theological, scriptural component, as it enables faith leaders to address sensitive and complex issues while using a discourse and framework they know and respect.
  • Faith leader engagement is most effective when part of broader community-based approaches; an exclusive focus on faith leaders is not recommended.

Brenda Bartelink, Centre for Religion, Conflict and Globalisation, University of Groningen. Brenda is specialized in religion and development, health and well being and gender and sexuality. As a former advisor and coordinator of the Knowledge Centre Religion and Development and a convener of the research cluster Religion and Development at the Centre for Religion, Conflict and Globalisation, she cross-cuts the worlds of civil society, policy and research.

Elisabet Le Roux, Unit for Religion and Development Research, University of Stellenbosch. Lisa Le Roux is the Research Director at the Unit for Religion and Development Research (URDR), an interdisciplinary research unit at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. She is a faith and development expert, with a particular focus on sexual and gender-based violence. Having conducted research in countries across the world, her work includes the study of faith community responses to developmental issues in conflict-affected settings, patriarchy within faith communities, and interfaith peace and conflict.


A version of this post also appears on the Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa blog:

Pic. 1 This photograph is used for illustrative purposes only; while the practices discussed in this report are commonly practised in Niger, the individuals featured here have not necessarily been affected by the practices addressed in this paper. Richard Hanson/Tearfund

[i] The study produced three policy briefs, a synthesis report, five case studies and a webinar recording that can be found on the website of the Joint Learning Initiative on Local Faith Communities.

[ii] This study was funded by UK aid from the UK government. However, the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.

[iii] Pseudonyms are used in this post. This quote comes from an unpublished evaluation study of Channels of Hope for Gender for World Vision, carried out by Dr. Erin Wilson and Dr. Brenda Bartelink. Cf.

[iv] Longman, Chia, and Tamsin Bradley.2015Interrogating Harmful Cultural Practices: Gender, Culture and Coercion. Farnham: Routledge. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed March 27, 2017).

[v] Ben Jones & Marie Juul Petersen (2011) Instrumental, Narrow, Normative? Reviewing recent work on religion and development, Third World Quarterly, 32:7, 1291-1306, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2011.596747


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