Does education empower Health Extension Workers in Ethiopia?

This guest post is written by Dr Ruth Jackson of the Alfred Deakin Research Institute. Dr Jackson is working on a project focused on improving the use of maternal, neonatal and child health services in rural and pastoralist Ethiopia. The project is funded by the Australian Development Research Awards Scheme. Dr Jackson has been learning from the experiences of Women’s Extension Workers who work with the Afar Pastoralist Development Association, a partner in The Road Less Travelled project.

“…Across the world, as we talk about women in developing countries, there’s been increasing recognition that empowering women and girls is a key change agent for development.”

– Julia Gillard, time.com, 24 September 2014

Last year Hillary Clinton and former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced US$600 million in private and public funding for girls’ education. The project aims to reach 14 million girls around the world in the next five years.

Clearly, girls’ education is a good thing – but I’d suggest that education doesn’t automatically give girls or women agency – or the ability to make choices about what they want to do and to act on those choices (World Bank, 2012).

Ethiopia, ranked 173 out of 187 on the gender-related development index (GDI), has significant disparities between women and men. According to the Ethiopia Mini Demographic and Health Survey (Central Statistical Authority, 2014), 66% of rural women cannot read and write – more than three-quarters of these women are over 30 years of age.

During my current project funded through Australian Development Research Awards Scheme (ADRAS), I’ve met many Health Extension Workers (HEWs) in Ethiopia who’ve had some, but who all want more, education and training.

The criteria for HEW recruitment is that they are over 18 years of age, have grade 10 education and speak the local language. HEWs attend vocational training for one year before going back to their communities to become one of two HEWs for each rural village or kebele. Each kebele has a health post that serves around 5,000 people and functions as the operational centre for the HEWs. HEWs provide services in 16 packages in hygiene and environmental health; family health; disease prevention and control; and, health education and communication.

A rural health post in Ethiopia. Image credit: Ruth Jackson

A rural health post in Ethiopia.
Image: Dr Ruth Jackson

After training, HEWs were also expected to provide focused antenatal care (ANC), clean and safe delivery, and essential newborn care services. Recent policy changes mean that HEWs should now refer pregnant and birthing women to health centres staffed with skilled birth attendants capable of managing normal birth and Basic Emergency Obstetric and Neonatal Care (EmONC). Health centres refer women to hospitals that are equipped and staffed to provide comprehensive EmONC services if required.

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