Decades-long study in Bangladesh shows how access to family planning shapes lives

On a sweltering July day in 1984, Jane Menken stepped off a plane in the teeming capital city of Dhaka, Bangladesh, boarded a van for a dusty, four-hour journey to the remote villages to the south and embarked on a decades-long quest to answer a question of global importance: What happens when women gain the ability to control their reproductive destiny?

Just 13 years earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had written off the newly born nation of Bangladesh as a famine-stricken and insolvent "basket case." With 64 million people in a region about the size of Wisconsin, it was the most densely populated non-island country on the planet. And with a fertility rate of seven children per woman, about 14 percent dying before their first birthday, it was considered the poster child for those warning of an impending "population bomb."

But by the time Menken arrived, a transformation was quietly brewing—one woman at a time.

In the conservative Muslim district of Matlab, where she was headed, a nongovernmental organization had begun to provide free, in-home contraceptive access to tens of thousands of women, otherwise secluded due to religious customs that require women to segregate themselves from men.

Menken, a mathematician-turned-social-demographer with a focus on public health, had been crunching numbers about the initiative from afar since its inception. With her own children now grown and her classes dismissed for summer, she had the chance to see things for herself now.

"I didn't want to just be a tourist," recalls Menken, a Distinguished Professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, in her home adorned with hand-stitched pillows, silver jewelry molds and decorative bowls collected during her time in what became a second home.

"I wanted to see how the people behind the numbers lived, and I wanted to use those numbers to benefit society."

She would return for months every year for more than three decades, bringing along protégés from Boulder and beyond to spearhead one of the longest and largest studies of family planning ever conducted.

Today, Menken, who served as director of the Institute of Behavioral Science from 2001 to 2015, is considered a pioneer in her field—one of the first to prioritize women and their desires about childbearing as a central focus of research.

And Bangladesh, which turned 50 this year, is now viewed as a model of progress, with a booming economy and a fertility rate of just two children per woman—most of those kids far better off than their predecessors.