"Culture is a matrix of infinite possibilities and choices. From within the same culture matrix we can extract arguments and strategies for the degradation and ennoblement of our species, for its enslavement or liberation, for the suppression of its productive potential or its enhancement."
—Wole Sovinka, Nigerian Nobel Laureate
Despite diverse histories, circumstances and cultures, almost every country in the world has agreed on the same set of goals for achieving a better future.
UNFPA has been given the task of implementing some of these goals that touch on the most sensitive and intimate spheres of human existence, including reproductive health and rights, gender relations and population issues.
Success, we have learned, requires patience, a willingness to listen carefully and a respect for cultural diversity. This is part of what we mean by a culturally sensitive approach. The approach comes to life through the nine case studies we have collected.
Different social and cultural realities create both challenges and opportunities for achieving internationally agreed upon goals.
Changing attitudes, behaviours and laws – especially those dealing with gender relations and reproductive health – has proven to be a long-term and complex task. And changing mindsets can be more difficult than providing services. This may be especially true when lives are bound by centuries-old traditions and complex cultural constructs.
That is why UNFPA in 2002 launched its initiative to systematically mainstream culturally sensitive approaches into programming efforts. On the ground, this demands a greater emphasis on working with communities and local agents of change – engaging in dialogue, listening, sharing knowledge and insights, and jointly planning the way to move ahead.
It requires understanding the cultural dynamics in each society where UNFPA works and the positive, as well as the negative, cultural values, assets, expressions and power structures.
The results – for example, the reduction of harmful traditional practices, a new law to end sex-selective abortion and new partnerships with religious institutions – have been gratifying. These results mean that more people can enjoy their fundamental human rights.
Examples of culturally sensitive approaches to programming include:
UNFPA's work on culture has been accomplished with the help of generous funding from the governments of Switzerland, Germany and Sweden.