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Background and Introduction

Thirty years ago this kind of approach and partnership among the advocates of gender and reproductive health with the ulama in the Province of Tawi-Tawi has been an uneasy path to move forward. The struggle has not been easy for both sides-advocates and the religious sector. There has been some efforts done by some NGOs and funding agencies in some parts of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), but because of the contentious debates on the interpretation and views on gender, reproductive health and women’s empowerment, the advocacy became even more challenging. 

But in recent years there has been a growing recognition of the vital role of some Ulama in helping understand and redefine the health-seeking behavior of the Muslims most especially the young adults. Because of the social legitimacy of the religious leaders in the community, they help shape social values and norms and therefore influence the attitudes of the people. 

In 2006 the Neighbors Popdev Center Incorporated (NPDC) consulted some Ulama in the Province of Tawi-Tawi and engaged them in a series of dialogues - seeking their help as to how to advocate for gender-just core messages that will address the issues identified through the community needs assessment (CNA) done earlier by NPDC. Some of the salient points of the research (CNA) from the eight pilot barangays in the two municipalities of the Province of Tawi-Tawi; Bongao and Panglima Sugala were high MMR, prevalence of elopement cases in some of the pilot barangays, early marriages among the adolescents and their risky sexual behaviors, use of prohibited drugs, less livelihood opportunities and education, dynamite fishing to name a few. Some identified community-based religious leaders thereafter were presented with the Fatwa on FP and the booklet of Grand Mufti of Cairo Sheikh Tantawi on RH and Islam. It was noted during the RTD that some of them were not aware of the Fatwa on FP, some did not understand the different elements of RH, while others who had attended one or two seminars on FP said that they did not understand some sessions presented to them because of the language barrier since English was used. 

That same year Neighbors and some of the gender and RH allies at the communities brainstormed together to develop a training design on the Inclusion of Gender, RH and PDS in the Khutba and Nasihat. The Community Needs Assessment was used as a guide to answer prevailing concerns of the communities. This activity was done to develop a healthy partnership between NPDC and other advocates with the religious sector. The goal is to actively promote gender just interpretations of the Holy texts and thereby correct the ‘myths’ and misconceptions on gender and RH concerns at the community level. After the formulation of the topics and gathering of materials to be used for the four (4) days training-workshop in Bongao, the NPDC dialogued with the different barangay leaders and their ustadz and imams and sought their advice regarding the training design. The NPDC found it very important for the future allies to know the sincerity of the partnership that we want to foster with them. This is why there should be transparency in dealing with them. NPDC’s commitment to facilitate localization of some materials on RH and gender was also emphasized to them. Through this approach, we were able to foster a friendly engagement and avoided a hostile environment while discussing gender and RH even when there were disagreements on certain topics. 

Dr. Jun Naraval, Founder of MR GAD Movement in Davao City discusses Men’s Reproductive Health with the Sahaya sin Kawman group of religious leaders, tribal and community of elders and barangay elected officials in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi