Written by Wahid Siddiq and Julienne Corboz
As part of the What Works to Prevent Violence against Women and Girls Programme, Help the Afghan Children (HTAC) is implementing and building evidence about the effectiveness of peace education as a form of violence prevention in Afghanistan. HTAC is delivering a peace education curriculum to high school students (boys and girls), and is working with community members, civil society organisations, and influential and religious leaders to build awareness about the rights of women and girls, and the prevention of violence.
Religious leaders are key stakeholders in HTAC’s intervention and vital to its success. Religious leaders are extremely respected by local communities in Afghanistan and are a source of knowledge and guidance on Islamic, customary and socio-cultural issues. Religious leaders also play an important role in resolving or mediating problems, conflicts and disputes within the community and within households.
There are a number of benefits to working closely with religious leaders in projects addressing the prevention of violence against women and girls in Afghanistan. Religious leaders can assist with mobilizing community support for projects that are sensitive in nature, such as projects involving women’s rights and participation. Also, due to religious leaders’ key role in disseminating messages to community members during Friday prayers, raising awareness among these leaders on how the rights of women and girls are supported in Islam is vital to ensuring that messaging is supportive of project objectives.
HTAC’s experience working in Afghanistan has led to some key learnings about how to improve project engagement with religious leaders and how to ensure their participation is effectively integrated into project implementation. Below are a few tips that have helped HTAC to maximize their engagement with religious leaders.
- Projects should be appropriate to the cultural and religious context. Implementing projects associated with the rights of women and girls can be highly sensitive, particularly if community members feel that men and boys will not benefit, or if they feel that projects will go against Islamic traditions. Engaging religious leaders in a participatory way from the beginning of a project, and ensuring that their perspectives are fed into project design, can help to build trust and ensure that project implementation is culturally and religiously appropriate.
- Despite religious leaders being an important source of knowledge and support for interventions, project should invest in capacity building and awareness raising of religious leaders in relation to the role of women and girls according to an Islamic perspective. There are varying interpretations of gender in Islamic texts and these are often misinformed. Experience suggests that religious leaders often welcome and appreciate learning different interpretations of the Quran and the roles and rights of women and girls in religious texts.
- Religious leaders often want to be actively involved in development and humanitarian projects, including those related to women and girls. There is sometimes a perception that religious leaders will reject such projects due to assumptions that they will not support women’s rights activities. However, HTAC has found that religious leaders in general complain about not being consulted enough, and that when given the opportunity they have welcomed participating in projects that support women’s rights and participation in community affairs.
- Remember that although religious leaders are important stakeholders, there are other important stakeholders, such as government officials, civil society organizations (including women’s CSOs), and traditional community leaders. Different communities have different power relations and traditional customs, and different stakeholders relate to each other in different ways. Understanding these relationships (particularly power relations) and the specific cultural context is important for understanding how to establish relationships and trust in the community.