The Pretence of Neutrality: Religion and the Implementation of Programmes on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

by Brenda Bartelink

In the past decade sexuality has become a centre of contestation and cultural encounter between African and “Western” actors in African societies. Initially tied to contestations over the best ways to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic and halt the virus, human sexuality has come to be seen as a key issue in the transformation to more healthy, equal, and just societies.[i] However devastating, the broader cultural and political dynamics that form the background against which so-called gay bills in countries such as Uganda were proposed cannot be denied. These dynamics are visible in various national discourses that emphasize the destructive influence of the West to create a positive mirror image of moral integrity and good citizenship.[ii]

While much has been written about how religion is entangled in controversies around (homo-)sexuality in African countries such as Uganda, Zambia, Nigeria and South Africa, there is still a gap when it comes to understanding how “Western” humanitarian policies and programmes are informed by specific moralities. Michael Barnett has argued that Western humanitarianism is deeply pragmatic, which presupposes a certain worldview that centralizes scientific knowledge and rational procedures.[iii] As a consequence, western humanitarianism tends to limit the space for faith and personal engagement. Western feminists have pointed out that knowledge is not neutral.  Instead, knowledge is gendered through its construction in predominantly white, heterosexual frames. However ironic, sexual and reproductive health policies and programmes, which have emerged out of a fruitful marriage between Western feminism and the development sector, have a pragmatic focus on evidence-based knowledge about sexuality that excludes consideration of emotions and culture. The dominant masculine discourse has framed emotional and cultural attributes as “feminised” and subsequently also privatized – alongside religion.

Secular moralities

Historian Joan Wallach Scott has argued that female sexuality became a strong symbol of secular liberalism in Western Europe while religion became seen as a ‘relic of an old age’.[iv] She coined the term ‘sexularism’ for how Western European societies present themselves as the saviours of people who are oppressed because of their gender or sexual identities. Secular liberal discourses on sexuality have become important in European societies dealing with (sexual) diversity. Yet, despite their emphasis on equality and inclusion, secular liberal discourses have their own exclusionary mechanisms. In the Netherlands for example, we have seen that LGBT rights have been emphasized as a way to stress the otherness of Muslims in public and political debates.[v] This is, amongst others, a sign that public and political debates have gradually moved from an emphasis on tolerance or diversity, to a secular progressivist frame that allows less space for voices that critique or offer alternatives to secular liberal views.[vi] One consequence is that in public discourses in Western European societies such as the Netherlands, religion is increasingly emphasized being conservative and traditionalist, and something necessary to overcome in order to progress.

In the past decade sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) became the flagship of social development programmes of donors from the Netherlands. While SRHR were closely linked to HIV/AIDS policies in the past, since 2010, SRHR have become a core theme in Dutch development policy, despite the development policy shift to a focus on economy and entrepreneurship.[vii] Dutch development NGOs have traditionally cooperated closely with policymakers, influenced by the so-called co-funding schemes by which humanitarian NGOs could access significant proportions of government funding.[viii] While NGOs have gradually become more independent due to changes in funding relations (amongst others), SHRH seems to be a policy area where government and NGOs still share a common agenda. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs holds constructive working relations with the knowledge centre of sexuality, Rutgers/ WPF, for example. Rutgers is an NGO that works in UN lobby circles, but also in the implementation of grass-roots sexuality education programmes worldwide.

Given the contestations over sexuality, and more particularly over how Western understandings of sexuality and human rights are framed, critical investigation into the meanings and consequences of SRHR policies and programmes is needed. Awareness needs to be raised on how humanitarian policies on sexual and reproductive health and rights, and the implementation of such policies by Dutch humanitarian organisations are influenced by specific culturalist understandings of sexuality. For one, it is not hard to recognize a secular progressive frame in statements like those made by the previous Minister for Development Cooperation, Ben Knapen, who argued in 2010 that the Netherlands is particularly suited to help breaking taboos about sexuality around the world. In her speech to the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 2014, the current development Minister Lillianne Ploumen has, however, stressed the importance of dialogue with ‘those who think differently’ on sexuality and gender, including traditional and religious leaders. A critical question is how open such a dialogue can be? Are Dutch humanitarian actors capable of suspending their judgments and listening, rather than seeing their default position of a liberal-conservative divide confirmed?

The implementation of SRHR programmes: dialogue or contestation?

Turning from the policy level to the implementation of SRHR programmes by Dutch humanitarian organisations, we can also see the ‘secular progressive’ frame of sexuality in the programmes of specialist organisations. Rutgers/ WPF developed a highly attractive and innovative programme for comprehensive sexuality education called the ‘The World Starts With Me’. [ix]  This programme is adapted to the local context in the process of implementation, and therefore known to be culturally sensitive. Moreover, it is stressed as being evidence-based. However, the title frames sexuality as primarily individual. The title signals that the overall aim of the programme is to give young people the information and knowledge to make their own decisions with regard to their sexual and reproductive health. Scientific evidence may suggest that this is indeed a successful way of preventing disease and unwanted pregnancies. Yet it also downplays the influence of broader relationships and structures on young people’s decisions, including cultural and religious norms as well as intergenerational dynamics. Evidence-based SRHR programmes are not neutral but introduce specific secular liberal moralities.

Among the implementers of ‘The World Starts With Me’ in developing contexts is a network of Christian humanitarian organisations known as Educaids. The Christian organisations from the Netherlands that have initiated the network implement SRHR programmes as part of much broader and longer relations with faith-based partner organisations at the grassroots. In the many conversations I had with employees of these Dutch faith-based organisations during years of research and professional engagement, it was often stressed that long relations with humanitarian organisations in Uganda, Malawi or Ghana are crucial in making a difference. According to these development professionals these relationships and the shared Christian or broader faith-based identities contribute to the trust that is necessary to engage in a dialogue on sensitive issues. The fact that they address SRHR as part of broader health, HIV/AIDS and gender programming is another asset that is emphasized. Yet Educaids choice for implementing ‘The World Starts with Me’ programme indicates that secular liberal understandings of sexuality are entangled with these notions of shared religiosity and dialogue. This raises questions of how these different discourses meet and interact in the implementation of SRHR programmes by Christian humanitarian organisations from The Netherlands and their faith-based partners in Africa.

Critical investigations…

An assumption that implicitly and sometimes more explicitly informs much of the scholarship on faith based organisations, is that these actors in particular are able to build bridges across religious/ secular divides.[x] Yet the question is whether the practices of Christian (and other faith-based) humanitarian organisations substantiate this assumption.[xi] In addition it must be asked to what extent European based humanitarian actors are aware of their tacit cultural understandings of sexuality, and how this influences cultural and religious dynamics in the relationship with humanitarian actors in African contexts. In view of unequal power relations, how much space do Christian humanitarian organisations have to challenge such assumptions, particularly since they are themselves dependent on funding from their donor governments and constituencies? Such questions and others should inform critical reviews of the work of faith based humanitarian actors by scholars and professionals. Moreover, ‘western’ humanitarian actors need to acknowledge that they are part of the polarisations around sexuality in African contexts and review their own roles and positions, including their values and power claims much more critically. It is time to stop assuming and to investigate the meanings and consequences of faith-based sexual and reproductive health and rights programming in local African contexts. It is time to acknowledge that the pretence of neutrality is just that!

Brenda Bartelink is senior programme advisor at Oikos for the Knowledge Centre Religion and Development and a fellow of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain at the University of Groningen. Her PhD-thesis on the cultural encounter around the prevention of HIV and Aids between Christian humanitarian organisations in the Netherlands and in Uganda will be published later this year.


[i] Beckmann, Nadine, Alessandro Gusman, and Catrine Shroff. Strings Attached: Aids and the Rise of Transnational Connections in Africa.2014.
[ii] Sadgrove, Joanna. “Morality Plays and Money Matters: Towards a Situated Understanding of the Politics of Homosexuality in Uganda.” The Journal of Modern African Studies : a Quarterly Survey of Politics, Economics and Related Topics in Contemporary Africa. 50.1 (2012): 103-129.
[iii] Barnett, Michael N, and Janice G. Stein. Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
[iv] Joan Wallach Scott. Chapter 4 Sexularism in The fantasy of feminist history, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).
[v] Paul Mepschen, Jan Willem Duyvendak and Evelien H. Tonkens. Sexual Politics, Orientalism and Multicultural Citizenship in The Netherlands. Sociology, Vol. 44, no. 5. (Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Journals, 2010), 962.
[vi] Burchardt, Marian, Cora Schuh, and Monika Wohlrab-Sahr. “Contested Secularities: Religious Minorities and Secular Progressivism in the Netherlands.” Journal of Religion in Europe. 5.3 (2012): 349-383.
[vii] IOB Balancing Ideals with Practice. Policy Evaluation of Dutch Involvement in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. 2007-2012 (The Hague, Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs: 2013). Accessed on February 4 2015. Available on
[viii] J.Bos and G.H.A. Prince “Partners in Development. Development work by chuch and other non-governmental organisations in the early days.” In P.A.M. Malcontent and J.A. Nekkers, eds. Introduction. ‘Do something and don’t look back’. Fifty Years of Dutch Development Cooperation 1949-1999. (Den Haag: SDU, 2000), 16.
[ix] Information on the World Starts with Me programme is available on:
[x] Cf. Barnett, Michael N, and Janice G. Stein. Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
[xi] I will discuss these entanglements and their consequences for how SRH policies are negotiated in this specific case in-depth in future publications, including in a forthcoming PhD thesis on the topic.