UNICEF and religious leaders commit to improve the lives of children and women in Ethiopia

By Hanna Woldemeskel

MoU between UNICEF and major religious institutions for the wellbeing of children and women in Ethiopia
Haji Alfadil Ali Mustafa, General Secretary of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Counsel Signs Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between UNICEF and major religious institutions for the wellbeing of children and women in Ethiopia. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Sewunet

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.

UNICEF and religious institutions sign a Memorandum of Understanding to improve the lives of women and children in Ethiopia

MoU between UNICEF and major religious institutions for the wellbeing of children and women in Ethiopia
Dr Abba Hailemarim Melese, Deputy General Manager of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church Signs Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between UNICEF and major religious institutions for the wellbeing of children and women in Ethiopia © UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Sewunet

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, 02 August 2016 – Today, UNICEF and major religious institutions signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to address the issues affecting children, women and the community at large through social and behaviour change, by fully engaging the spiritual wings whose extensive structure reaches families and individuals throughout the country. 

The MoU resulted from continuous joint consultations, since 2014, through identified common ground between the core values of religious institutions, UNICEF’s mandate for children and women, and the need to work towards a major shift of working from a project based partnership to a more sustained and strategic approach to promote the rights and wellbeing of children and women.

At the signing ceremony, Dr Abba Hailemariam Melese, Deputy General Manager of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church said, “The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church pledges to take the agreed priorities forward by using its structures and hierarchies lying from the Patriarchate Office up to the parish churches by engaging over half a million clergies and religious fathers through the joint leadership of its spiritual and development wings.” 

Representing the Moslem Religion, Haji Azam Yusuf, Executive Director of the Ethiopian Moslem Development Agency, on his part said, “We sign the MoU today as part of our religious obligation to improve the lives of mothers, children and adolescents to be protected from violence and we promise to work hard towards every issue which is in harmony and does not in any way violate the basic rules and principles of our Religion – Islam. And this time, developmental partners have become wise by involving and engaging religious organizations and leaders to work for a common goal.” 

Abba Hailegabriel Meleku, representing the Ethiopian Catholic Church said, “UNICEF and religious denominations have many common elements concerning the wellbeing of children and women which binds them to work closer.  The Catholic Church affirms that every child has the right to be conceived within a family, through human act, to be born and raised within a stable and responsible family which is fundamental.”

Reverend Dr Wakseuym Idosssa, President of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus said, “The problems of harmful traditional practices and social injustices that women and children are facing today are still fresh and deserve our urgent response. In this regard, our congregation and preaching centres, which are over 12,000 in the entire country, will have great role to play in the areas of behavioural change and in building a loving and caring communities for the new generation.”

Currently, in Ethiopia, 3 million children are out of school, 40 per cent of under-five children are malnourished, only 7 per cent of births are formally registered, less than one third of pregnant women deliver in health facilities, vaccination is less than 70 percent coverage, and many girls are exposed to different kinds of harmful traditional practices. Moreover, disease outbreaks like Acute Watery Diarrhoea are affecting many.

“There can never be a more appropriate time for us to join forces, merge our mandate, responsibilities and moral values to enable our communities to build a world fit for children,” said Ms Gillian Mellsop, UNICEF Representative to Ethiopia. “I would like to reiterate UNICEF’s commitment to foster this partnership, as together, we can succeed in improving the lives of children, women and adolescents in Ethiopia. When we work jointly by promoting positive behaviour and social norms to increase demand and the provision of services, we not only bring results but also bring societal shifts, to build communities where children not only survive but thrive,” she added.

Hulluf Woldesilassie, Deputy General Secretary of Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia said, “Inter-Religious Counsel of Ethiopia has been working on awareness creation and awakening responsibility through its national and regional platform. Through this MoU, we commit to further strengthen our commitment in a more focused and networked approach and make an impact together with other actors.”

The areas of intervention outlined in the MoU include; maternal, neonatal, child and adolescent health, immunization, Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF), hygiene and sanitation promotion, birth registration, Integrated Early Childhood Development and Education (IECDE), girls education, prevention of HIV/AIDS and gender based violence, ending harmful traditional practices including Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) and child marriage.

The partnership is aimed at accelerating the joint efforts to alleviate the chronic challenges in the community by addressing them at the core – in people’s minds and attitudes.

Hereafter, all the signatories will continue to find appropriate platforms for continued discussion and deliberation for evidence based planning and implementation of interventions to benefit women and children.

Moving the conversation forwards: Religious leaders vow to join hands for children with UNICEF

Group Photo: UNICEF consultative workshop with religious leaders in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has come a long way, in development terms, since it adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as part of its national agenda. Remarkable achievements have been registered within various social wellbeing parameters. Most notably, the country has achieved MDG 4 – to reduce child mortality by two thirds – three years ahead of schedule. A lot remains to be done, however, particularly in reaching the most disadvantaged children – 3 million are out of school, 40 percent of under-fives are malnourished, only 7 percent of births are formally registered, less than one-third of pregnant women deliver in health facilities, key vaccinations are achieving less than 70 percent coverage and a high number of girls are being exposed to a variety of harmful traditional practices.

While Ethiopia is on track to achieving the majority of MDGs before the 2015 deadline, the involvement of stakeholders, such as religious leaders, is crucial. This is particularly true in reaching the most disadvantaged communities. In line with this premise, UNICEF held a consultative workshop with religious leaders on Monday, 23 June 2014, in Addis Ababa. The half-day workshop targeted the creation of shared values and common ground in bringing a more prosperous future to the children of Ethiopia.

“We aim today to begin a new conversation, enabling us to work together towards a common goal,” said Dr Peter Salama, UNICEF Representative to Ethiopia, whilst opening the workshop, further emphasising that religious institutions are able to reach out to communities at a grassroots level more effectively than any other social network. They are also instrumental in influencing positive behaviour and social norms, and thus working with these institutions is not considered as a second option. Dr. Salama spoke of the need to scale up UNICEF’s work with religious leaders on what they are uniquely positioned to achieve among their millions of followers – mobilisation for action in the wellbeing of children.

After a brief presentation of UNICEF’s guide on partnerships with religious communities and the situation of children in Ethiopia, the workshop continued with discussions centred around experiences and priority intervention areas.

Best Experiences Shared

The civic engagement of religious institutions in Ethiopia is commendable.  For instance, the experience shared by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church revealed that the church’s 42-year-old development wing has been actively involved in numerous developmental activities placing women and children at the centre of the issue. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church Development and Inter-Church Aid Commission has developed declarations on gender based violence and harmful traditional practices, as well as safe motherhood.  What was interesting for participants was the church’s adoption of a “Development Bible”, which contains 360 daily teachings, incorporating over 45 contextualised messages. These include a focus on gender equality, Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), maternal health, HIV/AIDS and Harmful Traditional Practices (HTPs).

Similarly, the Ethiopian Muslim Supreme Council shared information of their work towards a “fatwa” (declaration) against FGM/C. A representative from the Council recounted how talking about FGM/C had been a taboo for religious fathers of previous years. However, leaders are now speaking out against the practice and bringing change in project areas. The Council also underlined the need to scale up the intervention, in order to stop the practice altogether. The experience of the Ethiopian Catholic Church in the development of the Child Protection Policy and the concept of ‘serving the whole person’ expressed by the Ethiopian Evangelical Church, Mekanyesus, and the Kale Hiwot Church, was also shared with participants.

Three umbrella Forums – the Ethiopian Interfaith Forum for Development Dialogue and Action, the Inter-Religious Council Ethiopia and the Evangelical Church Fellowship Ethiopia – also shared their experiences in mobilising member institutions in various projects. These included maternal and child health, peace building and HIV prevention. The efforts to mainstream the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and HTPs in theological schools was also highlighted.

Way Forward

In the past, UNICEF and other organisations predominantly worked with the development wing of religious institutions. However, it is recognised that this undermines the significant return of actively engaging in the spiritual wings. The spiritual wing reaches over 97% of the nation’s population through various religious structures, whilst the regional presence and coverage of development wings is dependent upon resources.

UNICEF is keen to work with both the spiritual and development wings of the major religious institutions and umbrella forums through a long term strategic partnership. UNICEF is also ready to provide technical support, policy advice and capacity building on the key child related interventions conducted by these institutions. The religious leaders have also reaffirmed their commitment to working with UNICEF.

Before the close of the workshop, participants agreed to form a small working group to develop the partnership framework.