By Hanna Woldemeskel
Addis Ababa, 2 August 2016 – Ethiopia’s Leaders of major religious institutions signed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with UNICEF marking their joint commitment for sustained promotion of the rights and wellbeing of children, adolescents and women through strategic behaviour and social change interventions. Fourteen signatories signed the MoU, including five major religious denominations along with their respective development offices and four umbrella institutions.
Religion is at the heart of people’s value and identity and religious leaders enormously influence moral values and socialization of children in all aspects of life. Religious institutions reach out to vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families, through their inherent values of humanity and extensive structure reaching up to the family and individual levels.
Evidence shows that if investments are made to build capacity and engage religious institutions, they can create major impact for behaviour and social norm change. For example, in the Somali region, religious leaders massively contributed to stop the 2013 polio outbreak, by informing and encouraging their communities to regularly immunize their children. Religious institutions declaring against harmful traditional practices and their active engagement has a huge impact in accelerating Ethiopia’s commitment towards eliminating the female genital mutilation/cutting and child marriage by 2025. In Amhara region, for example when priests teach against child marriage, when they refuse to bless such unions, communities are receptive and young girls are given the opportunity to pursue their education and their dreams.
Although religious institutions have been working with UNICEF in the past, their unique opportunity for influencing positive behaviour and social norms was not fully maximized. The core purpose of the MoU, as stated by Gillian Mellsop, UNICEF Representative to Ethiopia, during the signing ceremony is “to build on existing commitments for the wellbeing of children and women in Ethiopia through sustained and long-term behaviour and social change actions with full engagement of the development and spiritual wings and umbrella institutions.” Gillian stressed, “This partnership will accelerate our efforts to alleviate chronic challenges in communities by addressing them at the core – in people’s minds and attitudes”
In their statements, all the signatory religious leaders avowed their commitment to what they called ‘Historic Consensus’ and outlined their respective faith values that create favourable grounds to promote the rights and wellbeing of children and women.
Dr. Abba Hailemariam Melese, the Deputy General Manager of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church Patriarchate remarked “…towards this cause the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church is ready to engage over half a million clergies and religious fathers with the joint leadership of our spiritual and development wings.” Similarly, Haji Al – Fadil Ali Mustafa, General Secretary of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council remarked that developmental partners have become wiser by involving and engaging religious organizations and leaders to work for a common goal.
Reverend Dr. Wakseyoum, Idosa, President of Ethiopian Evangelical Mekane Yesus Church tells the story of a girl he met a week ago who had dropped her studies from eighth grade and came to Addis Ababa fleeing forced marriage, when her relatives insisted that she returns to her village, she refused and opted to go and work in one of the Middle East countries as a house maid. “This story is one of many stories in our communities, and this is why a united effort is needed to reach to the grass roots in order to alleviate the pain that is still fresh and deserve our urgent response.”
In addition to the five major religious denominations of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC) Ethiopian Catholic Church (ECC), Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) and Ethiopian Kale Hiwot Church (EKHC) and their respective development wings, four umbrella institutions including; Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia (IRCE),Ethiopian Interfaith Forum for Development Dialogue and Action (EIFDDA),Evangelical Churches Fellowship of Ethiopia (ECFE), and Consortium of Evangelical Churches of Ethiopia Development Association (CECEDA) forwarded a statement affirming their commitment.