Lessons from Indonesia

It has the world’s largest Muslim population, yet Indonesia is widely regarded as the poster child of successful family planning.  A remarkable achievement, given that as recent as in the early 70’s, the average family size here was 5.6 births per woman. Today that stands at 2.3 and all this in a span of just over four decades. Indonesia’s approach has lessons for many, including India which at 2.73 births per woman is far from the Millennium Development Goal of 2.1.

The government here has done this through partnership with various stakeholders – community leaders, media, private health sector and more importantly religious leaders. Getting leaders from groups like the Muhammediya has been critical to the program’s success.  One of Indonesia’s oldest Faith Based Organizations, the Muhammadiya  was formed in November 1912 in Yogyakarta. It has leaders in all thirty three provinces in the country and supports key government initiatives in health and education.

“But doesn’t Islam discourage family planning”, I ask Dr Atikah M Zaki, Health and Social Coordinator of the Aisyiyah, the women’s wing of the Muhammediya group. “Islam is not against temporary methods,” Dr Zaki points out. “We encourage pills, IUD, injections and spacing. It is permanent methods like abortions and sterilizations that are not allowed.”

The group even counsels couples who are divided over FP. “When the wife wants to delay babies and the husband is opposed to it, our local leaders intervene and convince him,” says Dr Fifi Maghfirah.  In fact the Muhammediya was the first Islamic organization in the world to promote FP.  “In most Muslim countries there is no difference of opinion on temporary methods of contraception,” says Farahanaz Zahidi Moazzam, a freelance journalist and activist from Pakistan. “But the difference between Indonesia and other Muslim countries is that it is discussed openly here.  What is remarkable is that the organization is using religion to promote FP,” Moazzam adds.

It is a tactic that could work in India where family planning remains a sensitive topic. Bringing community leaders on board could help overcome reservations that decades of the government’s  ‘’Hum Do Hamare Do’’ (We are two, and we have two) campaigns have not.

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