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Fulbright Scholar Debi Fry to study how a new health care policy is affecting women in rural Bangladesh
One of Debi Fry’s priorities this summer is to learn to speak Bengali. The recipient of a 2001 Fulbright Student Scholarship and a master’s degree candidate in the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, Fry will spend the next nine to 12 months in Bangladesh gathering vital information about how a new government health care policy is affecting women in rural villages.
Fry, a native of Vancouver, Wash., will be working with researchers from the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research and the Bangladesh Institute of Research for Promotion of Essential and Reproductive Health Technologies to gather data about the government’s new efforts switch the focus of women’s reproductive health care services from home visits to centrally located clinics.
According to Fry and her faculty mentor, Jeremy Shiffman, assistant professor of public administration in the Maxwell School, Bangladesh has one of the most successful family planning programs in the developing world. Established in 1974, the program relies on family welfare assistants to provide information about family planning and maternal and child health issues, as well as the delivery of various contraceptive methods to women in their homes.
“The country has developed a family planning program that treats people with dignity and has been helpful in making contraception accessible to rural women and men,” Shiffman says. “The result has been significant fertility decline, with women giving birth to an average of three children as compared to six children for women in Pakistan and four to five for women in India.”
Fry, who has always been involved with women’s rights issues, is passionate about the issues surrounding women’s reproductive health in developing countries. She has researched and written about the topic throughout her college career. “For me, it’s one way of empowering women,” Fry says. “The ability to plan and space your children is an essential part of human rights.”>
Fry spent the Fall 2000 semester studying abroad at SU’s Zimbabwe center, where she also worked as an intern for the Women’s Action Group, a non-governmental organization. Fry helped produce brochures about women’s health issues in English and local languages, and organized conferences and workshops on women’s health. She also did research at the Southern African Institute for Policy Studies on the effects of government economic policies on women’s health. She focused on the user fees women pay to receive maternal and prenatal care at hospitals and clinics. That research is the subject of her master’s thesis, which she will complete this summer.
“Debi is really committed to these issues,” Shiffman says. “I’m glad she is doing this kind of work.”
In Bangladesh, the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research is a one-of-a-kind facility that focuses on the health problems facing developing countries, including reproductive health. Fry will work with the center to interview physicians and field workers about the challenges Bangladesh faces in implementing a successful reproductive health agenda and the implications of moving towards a clinic-based approach for women’s reproductive health.
The clinic-based approach has already been implemented in an area called Matlab, Fry says. Some argue that while the home visit program was useful in the beginning, it now contributes to the isolation of rural women and that a clinic-based approach could provide a more comprehensive array of women’s health services. Others argue that rural women would be less likely to travel to a clinic to receive services. “We’re trying to figure out which view is correct,” Fry says.
Shiffman-whose ongoing research in the areas of population, public health and reproductive health in developing nations inspired Fry’s Fulbright proposal-helped her connect with key researchers in Bangladesh. While most of the researchers who work in the two organizations with which she will be affiliated speak English, Fry says the ability to speak and understand Bengali will be helpful when conducting her field research.
“Living with a host family in Dhaka will also help a lot,” says Fry, who is taking Bengali lessons this summer in New Orleans, where she is also working on a second master’s degree at Tulane University in addition to completing arrangements for her trip overseas. “The hardest part is setting up housing, figuring out who will pick me up at the airport, things like that. It’s the little things that make all the difference.”