Health Workers and Health Knowledge as Avenues of Empowerment


In 1992, the regime in the Islamic Republic of Iran wished to mobilise the public in support of its Islamic ideological and socio-political visions. One initiative, which delivered some benefits to the public, while at the same time installing and maintaining mechanisms of state control, was the introduction of the Iranian Ministry of Health’s Voluntary Health Workers (VHW) Program in low-income neighbourhoods in Iran. This Program aimed to deliver basic health and family planning information to communities. By 2006, the Program involved close to 100,000 women covering 340 cities, towns and 2,657 villages of the country.

A limited survey was carried out in Tehran between 1996 and 1997 by the International Women and Law Program of Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) in Iran, who found that women who had become volunteers welcomed this opportunity to be publicly active despite being aware that they were being utilised by the Ministry of Health to achieve its goals at the least cost.

In 2007, the Women’s Empowerment in Muslim Contexts Research Program Consortium (WEMC) undertook a renewed study, involving 100 in-depth interviews with women who took part in the Voluntary Health Workers (VHW) Program in the cities of Tehran, Mashhad, and Tabriz in Iran as well as some eight focus group discussions that involved a further 98 volunteer women in these three cities. The intention was to examine the unintended consequences of the VHW Program on the lives of volunteer women and their communities, and analyse possible implications for gender role ideology and the state’s gender vision.

The research shows that women taking part in the VHW Program have acquired an opportunity to redefine their own role, at least within their family and household and in their community. In the process of delivering information, using the legitimacy that the Islamic Republic had bestowed on them, they extended the role of women as wives and mothers from the restricted focus of domestic affairs to a vast array of public participation in the lives of their neighbourhoods.

The full case study based on the VHW Program, and an abridged version are provided from the 'view documents' link above.


11 pp. (summary 2 pp.)

Published 1 January 2009