Volunteers in Ethiopia's women's development army are more deprived and distressed than their neighbors: Cross-sectional survey data from rural Ethiopia

Kenneth Maes, Svea Closser, Yihenew Tesfaye, Yasmine Gilbert, Roza Abesha

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Many Community Health Workers (CHWs) experience the same socioeconomic and health needs as their neighbors, given that they are by definition part of their communities. Yet very few studies aim to measure and characterize experiences of deprivation, poverty, and wellbeing among community health workers. This study quantitatively examines deprivation and wellbeing in Ethiopia's Women's Development Army (WDA), a massive unpaid community health workforce intended to improve population health and modernize the country. Methods: We conducted a survey of 422 volunteer WDA leaders and community members in rural Amhara state, part of a mixed-methods ethnographic study of the experiences of women in the WDA. The survey asked a variety of questions about respondents' demographics, education, assets, and access to government services. We also used survey measures to evaluate respondents' levels of household food and water security, stressful life events, social support, work burden, and psychological distress. Results: Volunteer WDA leaders and community members alike tend to have very low levels of schooling and household assets, and to be heavily burdened with daily work in several domains. Large proportions are food and water insecure, many are in debt, and many experience stretches of time with no money at all. Our survey also revealed differences between volunteer WDA leaders and other women that warrant attention. Leaders are less likely to be married and more likely to be divorced or separated. Leaders are also more likely to experience some aspects of food insecurity and report greater levels of psychological distress and more stressful life events. They also report slightly less social support than other women. Conclusions: In rural Amhara, women who seek out and/or are sought and recruited for leader roles in the WDA are a population living in precarity. In several domains, they experience even more hardship than their neighbors. These findings highlight a need for careful attention and further research into processes of volunteer CHW selection, and to determine whether or not volunteering for CHW programs increases socioeconomic and health risks among volunteers. CHW programs in settings of poverty should stop using unpaid labor and seek to create more paid CHW jobs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number258
JournalBMC public health
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 14 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Community health workers
  • Ethiopia
  • Food insecurity
  • Mental health
  • Water insecurity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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