Employment in family planning and women's status in Bangladesh

Stud Fam Plann. 1992 Mar-Apr;23(2):97-108.


This study investigates how employment in family planning affects the status of community workers. The focus is on three critical variables: prestige, professional status, and social influence. The data are derived from a focus-group study conducted in 1987-88 in the Maternal and Child Health and Family Planning Project in Matlab, Bangladesh. Focus-group sessions were held with community workers, their husbands, community leaders, and community women. Results show that although community workers initially faced intense hostility in the community, they succeeded in maintaining the prestige that is traditionally accorded to women in their conservative, rural society. Moreover, they established themselves as valued health and family planning professionals in a social context where professional roles for women have been extremely circumscribed. Finally, they gained social influence by performing a range of functions in the community that exceed formally prescribed job responsibilities. The professional and social leadership roles that community workers now assume imply a degree of status that seemed inconceivable a decade ago. That such change could result from a well-designed and appropriately managed family planning project deserves careful attention.

PIP: Focus group discussion from 1987-88 among 44 of the 65 community workers who had been with the Matlab Maternal and Child Health Family Planning Project (MCH-FP), Bangladesh over a decade, were conducted in order to investigate how FP affects the status of women. The variables under consideration were prestige, professional status, and social influence. Interviews were also conducted with husbands, community leaders, and educated community women. The social system of purdah which restricts extrafamilial activities places workers in conflict with established social and cultural norms. The findings of this investigation were that many changes took place over the decade. Prestige was regained by workers, who originally were thought to have lost their honor by violating the cultural patterns of seclusion and modesty. Recognition was given to these women for their professional expertise, community service, and control over medical resources. The rise in social status placed them in a position worthy of arbitrating family and neighborhood conflicts and sometimes advocating for women. Social and professional influences were possible because these women transformed traditional purdah into inner purdah, which placed them within the domain of the conservative definitions of gender. The strategy reflected accommodation and reform. The distinction is made between women's prestige which is respect for adherence to culturally defined patterns of female behavior and status which is women's control over resources, information, and other sources of power and influence. Project management was supportive in that routing of patients to the health subcenter or the Matlab hospital was accomplished through the community workers, and project staff deliberately showed respect to the worker when visiting a worker's area. In this manner, the worker's image was reinforced. The social conditions were such that there were adequate resources for service delivery also. Although there were socioeconomic changes taking place in the form of modernization, the status of employment may have been affected but responsibility for the changes in prestige, professional status, and social influence must be directed to the worker's and management. A well-designed and appropriately managed FP project can avail women of employment opportunities which provide access into male space, and provide control over resources, influence, and power.

MeSH terms

  • Bangladesh
  • Community Health Workers*
  • Cultural Characteristics
  • Developing Countries*
  • Employment / trends*
  • Family Planning Services / trends*
  • Female
  • Gender Identity
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Prejudice
  • Public Opinion
  • Women's Rights / trends*