Engaging individuals and communities to influence positive behavioural and social change is central to realizing children’s rights. Whether addressing the challenge of high rates of neonatal mortality; malnutrition; children not attending or dropping out of school; tackling violence against children; eliminating harmful social norms such as child marriage or female genital cutting; eliminating open defecation; addressing conflict and migration; ensuring social inclusion of children with disabilities; surviving natural disasters; supporting environmental protection or ensuring adolescent wellbeing, the underlying reasons for the challenges that undermine children’s wellbeing, in most cases, have a critical element of social and behavioural change.

One of the most powerful influencers of individual behaviours, social norms and collective action at community and societal level is religion. Religion has a profound impact on personal and collective values and social norms and as such can be a powerful catalyst for positive action to improve the lives of women and children. In situations of conflict, unrest and humanitarian crisis, religious leaders and faith actors are also singularly best positioned to foster inter-faith dialogue, diffuse tensions and discriminatory attitudes and provide spiritual and psychological support in the face of adversity. Conversely faith-based leaders/actors can be a source of detrimental influence which perpetuates harmful traditional practices, gender inequity and restricted access or resistance to life saving and health promoting behaviours, products and services.

UNICEF has a long history of active engagement with local faith actors as civil society partners for the wellbeing of children. A 2014 global mapping of the organization’s engagement with religious communities, however, showed that while 150 of UNICEF’s country offices across the world were engaging in one way or other with Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs), the partnerships for the most part were comprised of ad-hoc, activity level and short-lived initiatives versus more overarching cross-sectoral efforts tied to country programme priorities. Also, while sensitization, social mobilization and advocacy activities have accounted for two thirds of country-level FBO-related engagement, these have largely been characterized by message-based approaches, instrumentalist in nature and lacking evidence to address the complexity of social and behaviour change issues.

To address these challenges and maximize opportunities for more positive and impactful influence towards improving child and family wellbeing, UNICEF (Communication for Development Section and Civil Society Partnerships Unit in NYHQ), the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities and Religions for Peace in 2018 embarked on a new global Initiative on Faith and Positive Change for Children.

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