A Community Health Worker gender action framework: Implications for decent work, rights, and responsibilities

By Rosie Steege, Sally Theobald, Kate Hawkins

The health system is a growing employer of women and can help to contribute towards gender equality. Yet gender biases and discrimination are sadly alive and well within this sector. The need to promote gender transformational processes and decent work for health workers of all cadres was discussed at the WHO Human Resources for Health (HRH) Forum held in Dublin earlier this month.

A gender lens is often missing from analysis of the Community Health Worker (CHW) cadre of health workers who operate within communities serving as a vital link between them and the health sector. Although it varies by context, CHWs are predominantly women, often of lower socio-economic status, who have limited career opportunities. The HRH Forum provided an opportunity to highlight some of the gendered aspects of this cadre and showcase experiences and inspiring stories of action for CHW programmes. A panel chaired by Sally Theobald covered India, Brazil, South Africa and Malawi. She opened the session by highlighting the importance of gender and equity in human resources for health and “decent work” agendas, stressing that this lens needs to extend to CHWs who both experience gender inequities and also negotiate the ways in which gender and power play out within the households and communities they serve.

Gender dimensions of the ASHA programme

The first panellist was Kerry Scott (on behalf of Rejani Ved and Asha George) presenting work on the ASHA programme from India. The all-female cadre of staff was developed order to meet the country’s maternal and child health goals. The programme is now made up of 850,000 ASHAs (one per village). In order to better meet the needs of ASHAs a number of policy changes have been made. ASHA’s training has become residential with a crèche facility to ensure the women can participate and also fulfil childcare duties. ASHAs are included as member secretaries of village health committees. This enables them to move beyond the all-female maternal health space and encourages their active leadership in traditionally male dominated realms. Although ASHAs are not formally employed by the government, there are increasing monthly economic incentives for ASHAs to help them meet their need for regular income and encourage the uptake of banking services. The creation of more government scholarships for higher education for ASHAs creates more opportunities for women to access a career pathway. Newly introduced social security measures help support ASHAs via life and accident insurance and pension opportunities. Finally, the creation of rest accommodation in health facilities helps to increase ASHA safety and comfort (as one of their main duties is to escort expectant mothers to facilities to deliver, often at night).

These policy changes demonstrate positive active steps towards securing the safety and wellbeing of the ASHA as a mobiliser, facilitator and as a care provider. However, there are still challenges. There have been shocking examples of ASHAs being sexually harassed and even raped by community members and other health service providers in the course of their work. The government response has been to ensure that all service providers undergo sensitisation training, but there is still work to be done to ensure ASHAs’ safety and rights are protected at the community level. Kerry concluded with the call for constant adaptation of policies to ensure appropriate response to the ASHAs gendered needs. She posed the question, how do we balance policy progress against social norms which are slower to change?

Power, gender relations and heteronormativity in Brazil

João Nunes presented on Brazil and highlighted that there is a need for a political economy in analysis of human resources for health and the ways in which international political economies intersect with gender. Since its inception in 1987, the Brazilian CHW programme has been shaped by gender norms. The programme developed against a backdrop of neo-liberalisation, privatisation and an increasing feminisation of labour, where women were seen as precarious workers to fulfil permanent job needs. The programme was initially conceptualised as a way to reduce infant mortality whilst at the same time provide employment opportunities for poor vulnerable women and a make-shift solution for the health of poor communities. Perceived as natural carers and providers for their communities, these women are often required to go beyond their job specification and working hours, providing informal work which is not remunerated such as support for single mothers, victims of domestic violence, and sexual health.

As is often seen CHW programmes that require CHWs to come from the communities they serve, CHWs work in systems that enable and reproduce gendered vulnerabilities. Informal care work is seen as a women’s domain – this work is downgraded and informalised within the socio-economic system. Similarly, primary health clinics are understood to be a feminine space and often men do not visit. This is compounded by the cultural understanding that men must play a bread-winning role, working during the hours that the primary health care clinic is open. An example of how CHWs internalise and reproduce the norms that they work within was given with regards to the family health strategy – which assumes a binary heteronormative family of man, women and child. In recent years there has been change to make this strategy more diverse and reflective of current households and communities but there has been conservative push back with many CHWs themselves sharing these views.

Finally, João described how there are many obstacles to the discussion about women’s sexuality which has an impact on what CHWs can do in their formal conversations and advice. Women are seen as mothers and daughters and activities to support women’s sexual health is perceived to be limited to vulnerable groups such as sex workers or trans women. Due to religious and cultural norms discussion about sexuality can be very difficult. For example, the use of condoms is not acceptable for married couples. In the same way that heteronormative gender norms limit women’s capacity to provide sexual and reproductive care, they also constrain men in becoming CHWs. Due to sexual politics men are unable to enter homes which prevents them from providing adequate care. This suspicion of men and reluctance for them to enter the household space, is not unique to Brazil and similar dynamics have been seen in Kenya and many other countries.

Gender roles and CHWs in Malawi

Kingsley Chikaphupha from REACH Trust (and co-chair of the Thematic Working Group) gave us examples from Malawi, where there are both male and female Health Surveillance Assistants (HSAs). He highlighted how recruitment of CHWs, is not considered from a gender perspective and because of this there is a large imbalance between the numbers of men and women performing the role. Across all districts there are 30% male HSAs to 70% female HSAs. However, when you look specifically at hard to reach areas within these districts, the numbers are flipped, with 70% male, 30% female.

In hard to reach areas the 30% that are female also appears to be diminishing – this may be due to pressure from husbands to leave the role, or often it is reported that female HSAs leave if they are married to men in who are posted to work in urban settings due to their jobs. In some cases, male HSAs had wives who were posted to urban settings however, they chose to remain in rural areas due to cultural norms that make it shameful for men to be seen to follow their wives.

We heard how this imbalance affects the health of the community as, although both male and female HSAs have the same responsibilities on paper, in reality the division of labour is quite gendered.  In most settings male CHWs are more privileged than women with greater access to supervisory roles and equipment such as motorcycles.

King called for: 1) More gender disaggregated data on CHWs; 2) Greater support for skills development; 3) Gender transformative approaches in CHW policy; 4) Work with broader coalitions to prompt societal transformation, a review of current gender strategies, and the creation of a gender frameworks for CHWs.

Working with CHWs to engage fathers in health, wellbeing, and care

Andre Lewaks of Sonke Gender Justice South Africa, talked us through the MenCare Project,  gender transformative training by CHWs to promote father’s involvement in Early Child Development (ECD).

In South Africa 64% of children don’t live with their biological fathers following patterns that reflect strong cultural and patriarchal norms that promote women as the natural caregiver for children. For every hour of unpaid care given by a man, a woman gives eight. The MenCare Project trained child and youth care workers (CYCWs), provided home visitation programmes and complimented this with onsite mentorship and support of CYCWs.

A mixed methods evaluation of 544 fathers who took part in the project found a positive transformative change in attitudes towards heteronormative care roles and women’s labour. For example, when asked whether they agree with the statement “a women’s most important role is to take care of her home and cook for her family” before the intervention 79% of men and 60% of women agreed. After the intervention, this dropped to 31% of men and 33% of women. Participants also realised father’s roles went beyond provision of financial support and some women also reported that they realised their own role in the entrenched patriarchal mind set of the community.

The project reported that CYCWs had an improved capacity to understand and engage men. Men had an improved ability to express themselves which in turn improved communication between partners and lead to improved sharing of household responsibilities. Importantly, in a context of a high prevalence of intimate partner violence, there was a reduction in men’s abusive behaviour.

Instilling a gender transformative approach to National CHW programmes

Sarah Crass (on behalf of Polly Walker) discussed the gender transformative approaches that World Vision International (WVI) are undertaking through their CHW programmes in Lesotho, Ghana, Sudan and Mauritania. This includes the Timed and Targeted Counselling (TTC) model.

Fathers’ have a huge impact on children’s cognitive outcomes and even the relationships that they will go on to have in later life. Negative father figures can result in early sexual debut and increased childhood pregnancies. WVI’s evaluations found that a key limitation of CHW programmes, is lack of male partner engagement. Through their TTC model men are included by default and indicators for their involvement are included. It uses positive role modelling and healthy family models to engage men in family activities including time to play with their children and take part in other household activities traditionally viewed as women’s work. The model also makes use of male and female CHW pairs in household visits which is beneficial to circumvent norms that may inhibit cross gender discussions.

Through this intervention WVI found that TTC counselling is more productive and results in a greater number of concrete decisions being made if male partner is present. They also found that at the policy level male involvement is inadequately addressed and there is dearth of evidence here. They report that policy makers are aware of this gap and are keen to explore new methods for male involvement in community health as the non-participation of men inhibits early childhood development. Through a qualitative evaluation of the TTC model, they were able to report that male involvement leads to improved sharing of household chores with male partners. Male partners were also reported as more likely to take an interest in mothers’ nutrition during pregnancy and accompany mothers to give birth.

This panel helped to illuminate some of the issues facing CHWs and the communities they serve around gender. It was part of a larger call for greater gender analysis of challenges facing human resources for health which was heard throughout the conference.  For more information on gender and CHWs see our previous webinar on this topic and the REACHOUT blog. If you are interested in community health workers – join our thematic working group by emailing Faye.moody@lstmed.ac.uk.