Faith leaders are people of all genders who are recognised by their faith community, both formally or informally, as playing authoritative and influential leadership roles within faith institutions to guide, inspire or lead others.
As respected, trusted and well-known members of their communities, faith leaders are influential in guiding cultural and social norms and practices.
... of the world's population identify with a religious group
Faith leaders and gender justice
Faith plays a central role in shaping notions of gender and relationships. Faith-based organisations, faith leaders and religious texts have often been a key factor in reinforcing damaging gendered social norms at the local, national and global levels.
However, they have also shown that they can play a vital role in challenging and changing damaging, inequitable beliefs.
We work with faith leaders and faith groups to create a dialogue around gender discrimination and injustice. This includes the tradition of early or forced marriage, gender-based violence, female genital mutilation (FGM), lack of access to education and economic disempowerment.
Helping churches tackle gender-based violence, Brazil
Overview: Christian Aid’s partner, the Anglican Service for Diaconia and Development (SADD), work directly with Brazilian churches to tackle gender-based violence (GBV) within their communities. At the Casa Noeli dos Santos safe house in Rondonia, the only church-run safe house in Brazil, victims of gender-based violence are given psychosocial, practical and educational support to promote recovery and empowerment.
Key impact: To scale-up the impact of their work, Christian Aid has supported the creation of biblically-based training materials, to encourage other churches in Brazil to take a role in tackling violence in their communities – including speaking out when laws and policies in place to protect women are not fully implemented at a local level.
Key learning: Training faith-based organisations and leaders to understand and address GBV is key to transforming the culture of violence against women in Brazil.
Championing women and girls
We equip local faith leaders and male members of the community to champion the equal value of women. Faith leaders are given training and toolkits to enable them to use scripture to back up their messages and to address issues of gender-based violence and discrimination.
This helps to break down barriers to girls receiving education and empowers women to have greater control over their lives and bodies. As well as helping to achieve a more equitable and just position for women in their community.
In 2015, we supported the establishment of Side by Side an independent global faith movement for gender justice, made up of 43 member organisations (as of 2018). It aims to mobilise faith leaders, institutions and people of faith to take a more active and influential hand in achieving gender justice – especially through challenging and changing damaging social norms that promote gender inequality.
At an international level, Side by Side’s membership organisations, agencies and individuals, collaborate to strengthen faith voices for gender justice in spaces such as the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
Raising male champions for adolescent girls, Nigeria
Overview: CAAGI is a two-year pilot project to work with faith actors and faith based organisations to improve the choices and opportunities for adolescent girls to live a productive and meaningful life. This project seeks to advocate against religious and cultural norms limiting adolescent girls’ development.
Key impact: Faith leaders in the Sabongayan community have become male champions for adolescent girls after receiving training in gender and adolescent girl’s issues. Together they have opened discussions about the rights of girls, created a faith leader’s toolkit and started to change attitudes towards girl’s education by campaigning for behaviour change among their peers.
Key learning: The Sabongayan community clearly shows that, without change, it is impossible to break the cycle of limited opportunities and choices for girls. By equipping members of the community and faith leaders to advocate for the rights of adolescent girls, these attitudes can be dramatically shifted and the their rights championed rather than dismissed.
Faith leaders and community health
We work with faith leaders to improve the health status of communities, by reducing stigma around the use of family planning, increasing access to sexual reproductive health services (SRH) and prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS.
Changing attitudes towards family planning
Family planning is identified as one of the most effective routes to improve maternal and neonatal health.We provide faith leaders with training and information about the importance of family planning and sexual and reproductive health rights. Using theology as a basis to open up discussions about sexual health and to shift the attitudes of faith leaders and faith-based organisations about the use of contraceptives. Faith leaders are then able to incorporate this message into their sermons to educate community members on health issues and support them to adopt health seeking behaviour, including making free and informed choices about their reproductive health.
Another common barrier to the adoption of health seeking behaviour is a lack of communication between husbands and wives around the subject of family planning. Faith leaders help to address this by advocating for safe, reproductive practices and encouraging men to speak regularly and openly about birth spacing and birth control.
Raising awareness of HIV and AIDS
Christian Aid has worked extensively with faith leaders on HIV/AIDS programmes. This includes offering training on harmful cultural practices, attitudes and social norms that promote the spread of HIV/AIDS, as well as issues of discrimination against people living with these conditions.
In Burundi, Christian Aid and partners have worked with the Burundi Network of Religious Leaders living with or affected by AIDS, (BUNERELA+). Supporting the SAVE approach - safer practices, access to treatment, voluntary counselling and testing and empowerment – to encourage greater openness and promote best practice around HIV prevention, care and support.
Promoting greater openness around HIV prevention, Burundi
Hilarie Barahiraje is the pastor of New Life Church in Jesus Christ on the outskirts of Bujumbura.
After listening to the testimony of Pastor Tharcisse who founded BUNERELA+, Hilaire radically changed his outlook on HIV and now encourages members of his congregation to give their own testimonies. He is an active member of BUNERELA+ and in spreading the message that ‘you can be HIV positive and still remain a child of God’.
‘We think that we are really moving forward and we are proud of our members as they know more about HIV, family planning and gender violence’.
Faith leaders and humanitarian emergencies
Faith-based organisations are uniquely situated to provide critical links to local faith communities in humanitarian contexts, facilitating rapid response to disaster, promoting health-seeking behaviour and reinforcing the resilience of local communities for peace building and recovery.
The role of faith leaders in addressing the Ebola outbreak offers a compelling example of the important role that faith can play in humanitarian response.
Faith leaders were trained to understand the transmission of Ebola, promote good hygiene and safe burials, address stigma, provide psychosocial counselling to their community and to give assistance to those who needed it.
The embeddedness of faith leaders in the community allowed them to play a vital role in social mobilisation and behaviour change. Showing the importance of proactively engaging faith leaders in planning for recovery and in health emergencies.
For Muslims, to change the practice of washing the body before burial needed an Imam to promote behaviour change.’
International NGO, Freetown
Social Mobilisation staff member
Christian Aid’s partners in Sierra Leone engaged faith leaders and faith-based organisations to mobilise communities, lead behaviour change and shift attitudes towards local practices.
By engaging with the leadership of the faith community, biomedical messages which seemed harsh at first were adapted and given religious context.Leading to a shift in attitudes within the community and promoting the adoption of health seeking practices, such as hand washing.
Supporting Ebola recovery, Sierra Leone
Sheikh Ibrahim Sesay, Chief Immam from Pipeline Cole Mosque in Freetown, Sierra Leone conducted psychosocial training with religious leaders and representatives in his community.
This was part of a wider programme carried out by Christian Aid and its partners, with funding from the Disasters Emergency Committee, to provide psychosocial training in 13 districts across Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone was poorly equipped to deal with large numbers of people seeking mental health support, with only one psychiatric hospital in Freetown and limited non-specialised support in the districts.
Over 1000 religious leaders from a number of churches and mosques were trained in Ebola awareness and counselling.
Reports and resources
Our 2017 gender strategy reaffirms and renews our commitment to prioritising gender justice, especially for women and girls.
Gender injustice is rooted in unequal power relations and the most pervasive gender inequality is between women and men. Updated 2017 gender strategy.
Recommends how faith leaders can support Ebola recovery in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and discusses the broader role of faith in humanitarian response.
A reflection by the ACT Alliance Humanitarian Policy and Practice Advisory Group on the unique role of faith-based organisations in crises.
This joint agency study investigates the effectiveness of working with faith leaders to challenge harmful traditional practices (HTPs).