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"Family planning is not about stopping Muslim generations, it is about saving the lives of mothers and their babies", explains Said Mohammad Anwar, member of Afghanistan's General Council of Religious Scholars. He is one of the 150 religious scholars from across Kunar, Nooristan, Nangarhar and Laghman provinces who came together on the 18th of May for a three-day conference to discuss family planning in the light of Islamic teachings from the holy Quran and the words of Prophet Mohammad.

"In Kunar if you don't hear every day that a mother or a baby died during pregnancy or delivery, you hear it once a week", says Anwar. "This is not an issue that happens once in a while, it happens too often".

Just as Mohammad Anwar, all of the scholars attending the conference are respectable people in their communities. Some of them hold important positions in the Afghan Government and others are mullahs appointed by the Government to serve in a mosque, lead congregational prayers, preach and teach children and adults the holy Quran.

"Muslim religious leaders can be a positive influence in their communities to advance family planning and birth spacing practices when they have sound information and assistance in overcoming common misconceptions and misunderstandings", says Dr. Abdul Malik Faize, Program Officer in UNFPA Afghanistan in charge of coordinating the conference. "The promotion of family planning is one of the many initiatives undertaken by the Afghan Government to reduce maternal and newborn deaths".

According to the Afghanistan Mortality Survey, for every 1,000 live births, about three women die during pregnancy, in childbirth, or in the two months after delivery. Family planning is the best documented practice to reduce maternal mortality. Globally, current use of contraception prevents 118,000 maternal deaths per year. In Afghanistan, 90 percent of married women in the country know at least one type of family planning method but only 22 percent use one of them.

"In Afghanistan, people wrongly believe that family planning and birth spacing is forbidden by Sharia law, and this misconception highly contributes to the gap between knowledge and practice of family planning", explains Dr. Faize.

"There are certain precepts in Islam that don't have to be followed in specific cases. For instance, during Ramadan women are allowed to stop fasting if they are pregnant or breastfeeding. This is in order not to risk the mother's and baby's health and wellbeing. That is how family planning is; it is not just advisable but it is a must when the well-being of the mother and the child is in question," explains Mohammad Anwar.

Mohammad Anwar believes that sometimes people don't know how critical these issues are to their lives and communities. "This conference is a triggering reminder for me, and I believe for all my fellow scholars, that family planning is important and it is different to what we heard and believed for more than 30 years", says Mohammad Anwar.

The Islam and Family Planning Conference in Nangarhar is the fourth of a series of three-day meetings organized by UNFPA and the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs , Afghanistan's General Council of Religious Scholars , Ministry of Public Health , and Afghanistan Academy of Science to engage religious scholars in the promotion of family planning to address misconceptions related to this issue in the light of Sharia teachings paving the way to promote family planning in their respective communities.

The first national conference took place in Kabul in 2012, whereas the second and the third were held in Herat and Balkh in 2013.