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Breaking Taboos: Tajik Religious Leaders Engage Men on Gender Equity

On any given Friday, the Central Mosque of Bokhtar in Tajikistan’s Khatlon Region, led by Usmonali Nurov, welcomes over 65,000 men for prayers. Afterwards, this Senior Imam—his neighbors call him “Imam Usmonali” or “Ustod”— puts aside 20 minutes to talk with groups of men on maternal, newborn, and child health (MNCH) as well as gender equity.

Local traditions do not make it easy for men to speak on maternal, child, and gender issues, which are generally left to women. However, religious leaders like Imam Usmonali are making considerable inroads, breaking taboos by using Friday prayers to also address these issues.

“Well-formed male involvement approaches have significant potential to generate positive changes in mindsets and behavior of men according to religion,” he said.

In prevailingly Tajik Muslim society, religious leaders and mosques play an influential role to reach communities, especially those in remote areas where access to broadcast media is limited. The Abt-led USAID Healthy Mother, Healthy Baby (HMHB) Activity implements social behavior change communications (SBCC) campaigns and engages religious leaders and religious activists to make sure men receive crucial messages about nutrition, parenting, and gender equity.

Since 2022, HMHB has trained 300 male religious leaders on these and other MNCH topics. This male engagement has helped educate influential local men from 12 districts on gender-sensitive and gender-based issues, including supporting the care of pregnant and lactating women.

HMHB and local imams partner with the National and District Religious Committee to organize events during Friday prayers and call on men to enhance MNCH, explore gender-sensitive topics, and prevent domestic violence. HMHB collaborated with the Committee of Religion, Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations, and Ceremonies under the Government of the Republic of Tajikistan to develop the Khutba. This formal occasion for public preaching in the Islamic tradition is designed to explore knowledge of and attitudes and behaviors toward MNCH topics and to deepen men’s involvement and support. HMHB has also helped develop an SBCC package of informational materials and printed out 5,000 religious journals spotlighting key messages on improving nutritional status and family engagement.

With this support, informed religious members like Imam Usmonali became a conduit for awareness and advocacy for women and equity among healthcare providers, families, and communities. “The believers who show the most perfect faith are those who have the best behavior, and the best of you are those who do the best to their wives,” Imam Usmonali recites on a recent Friday.

He speaks about the health and rights of girls and women and their respected status in the context of Islam. Congregants listen to his words closely. After prayers, smaller groups of men gather. The conversations continue. In Khatlon, the responsibility to speak and support the health, nutrition, and rights of women and girls is now shifting to include men.

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