The Power of One Messenger
The mosque is full with men of all ages from Mahammedi and surrounding villages in eastern Azerbaijan. Farzeli Sherifov, a 33-year-old Muslim cleric, stands up after leading noon prayers, zhuhr, at his local mosque. But his congregation does not file out. Instead, they stay, and Farzeli engages them in a discussion about how to plan their families: “I educate people and explain how to use contraceptives, giving information about different methods and where to get them. I also advise the men to be safe and that it is their responsibility to prevent sexually transmitted infections. At the end, I distribute educational leaflets.” He does this regularly following zhuhr.
Farzeli is not only a revered religious leader, but also an advocate for the EngenderHealth-led ACQUIRE Project, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). An important strategy of the project is inspiring religious leaders like Farzeli to educate their communities about family planning and reproductive health.
Since graduating from university, Farzeli has worked as a Muslim cleric, but this has never been enough for him. From the beginning, he wanted to integrate his deeply held religious beliefs with his social conscience—to improve the quality of life for his people. In February 2008, he found just such an opportunity when he heard about the ACQUIRE Project at his local village club and decided to become an advocate. Community members applauded his decision. Soon, Azerbaijanis nationwide embraced the project, which in addition to community outreach has involved an extensive public education campaign, working with private-sector pharmacies to meet rising demands for contraceptives and training health care professionals to offer high-quality family planning services.
Today, Farzeli is one of 300 advocates (40% of whom are men) working in 67 communities; they have, in turn, reached more than 150,000 women and men with information about family planning options and have offered words of hope for their futures.
“I wish that my people, my country, our society will be healthy,” says Farzeli. “And that we, as healthy people, will serve our country.” Citing the words of Imam Jaffer Sadiq, spiritual successor to the Prophet of Islam, Farzeli adds, “Health is the greatest wealth.”