Social work education and practice in Bangladesh: Prospects and challenges
Though social work education was introduced in 1950s in Bangladesh, its academic and professional status is still far from being satisfactory. Social work graduates are engaged with manifold jobs in government, non-government and international organizations at home and abroad, but social work as an academic discipline or as a profession is much less familiar among all segments of people in the country. Students seeking admission in universities generally do not prefer social work for undergraduate study; rather opt for economics, English literature, sociology, public administration, political science etc. The reasons are multifarious like absence of state recognition for social work as a profession, lack of specified fields for social work practice, misunderstandings about social work education and profession, invisible contributions of social work practitioners and researchers, limited academic exercises of social work academicians etc. This article highlights some of the important issues relating to social work education and practice in Bangladesh.
Social work education started in Bangladesh in 1950s with the recommendations of United Nations expert team to address the chaotic situation erupted due to the exodus of Muslim migrants from India to Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947 before the independence of Bangladesh in 1971(Das, 2018, p. 33; Samad & Das, 2014, p. 73; Das, 2014, p. 40; Das, 2012; Sarkar & Ahmadullah, 1995). Number of schools of social work under different public and private universities across the country has increased since then, but its familiarity as an academic discipline or a practice profession is still considerably low (Das, 2018, pp. 33-34; Samad & Das, 2014, p. 74). Although social work graduates are well-employed in multiple sectors including government, non-government and international organizations inside and outside the country, status of social work is not rated as per the status of economics, business administration, English literature, sociology or even anthropology. In some cases, social work is substantially underrated considering it as a small branch of sociology without much theoretical underpinnings (Samad & Das, 2014, p. 74). Most people are unaware of the professional status of social work in the country. There is no reason for social work to be treated as highly prestigious as it fails to prove its special capability to serve the people, especially the marginalized ones (Das, 2012). Social work graduates generally do not work as social workers, and contributions made by social work graduates while working with different organizations have never been recognized as the contributions of social workers. The major challenge before social work education and practice perhaps lies there.
Is there anything called practice of social work?
Social work has been practiced from time immemorial in the Indian subcontinent. Voluntary, philanthropic and charity based social work mostly inspired by religious values have been undertaken by different individuals and organizations at different times in the entire region. The nature of practice of social work has changed with the advent of modern social work education and practice. But social work as such has never turned into a profession here (Shastri, 1966; Thomas & Pradeepkumar, 2018). Numbers of government organization under multiple ministries have been executing varied programs to benefit the marginalized and vulnerable population across the country where graduates from numerous academic programs actively work. Social work graduates are also found working in service-based government organizations like Rural Social Service (RSS), Urban Social Service (USS), Children’s Family (orphanage), Hospital Social Service, Cooperative Office, Women Support Programs (WSP), Correctional Services, One Stop Crisis Center (OCC), National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Rehabilitation Center for Destitute Women, Day-care Centers and so many others (DSS, 2012; Prodhan & Faruque, 2012). The list of these government organizations is quite large.
Social work graduates apply social work skills and knowledge one way or the other while serving the help seekers in these organizations. But the social workers employed in these organizations are neither recognized as social workers nor are their activities considered as social work practice. Social work graduates are not exclusively recruited in these government organizations, rather their number is lesser compared to non-social work graduates employed. No preference is generally given for social work graduates during the time of recruitment in these social work agencies. A big chunk of social work graduates work with thousands of non-government organizations (NGO) functioning throughout the country (Samad & Das, 2014, p. 76; Das, 2012). The activities of these NGO’s are multifarious and multidimensional.< > Social work graduates have ample opportunities to practice social work with different segments of population as being employed in NGO’s. For example, social work graduates employed in Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC, an internationally applauded NGO) can apply social work skills and knowledge while working under its ‘education program’ for those who remain excluded from ‘education for all’ policy of the government. Social workers employed in Grameen Bank apply social work skills and knowledge when micro credit is given to women’s groups for their socioeconomic empowerment. Association for Social Advancement (ASA, an internationally reputed NGO) has also employed many social work graduates who are directly involved in its myriad socioeconomic development programs for the marginalized communities. Social workers in ASA too practice social work one way or the other while working with the downtrodden (Hossain & Mathbor, 2014; Prodhan & Faruque, 2012; Samad, 2009). Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST, an NGO) provides legal aid to those poor and vulnerable women who are the victims of domestic violence or couple conflicts. Apart from providing legal aid, BLAST officials are involved in counseling, negotiation, arbitration, awareness building etc. which are related to social work practice (Bhattacharyya, Das, Alam & Pervin, 2018). Most of the officials working in BLAST are lawyer, though they have certain training on counseling and other social work related practice. But again the activities of all NGO’s which are similar to social work practice are not recognized as social work or the contributions made by social work graduates working in these NGO’s are never considered as activities of professional social workers. NGO’s also don’t give any priorities to the social work graduates for its social work activities. Quite a few social work graduates are employed in different international organizations like UNICEF, UNDP, Save the Children, UN Women, ILO, WHO etc., but again they are not recognized as social workers or their activities are not considered as social work practice, though much of their activities are directly or indirectly similar with social work practice (Das, 2018, p. 35). Social work graduates are nowhere recruited as social workers, rather they are treated as good as any other graduates recruited in any organization. This is one of the reasons because of which the familiarity of social work as an academic program or a profession is still low among the masses (Das, 2018, pp. 33-34; Das, 2012). Social work practice is very much found, but indeed not seen.
Why social work?
Most of the students seeking admission in undergraduate program at university level do not know the name of social work as an academic program. They first know about it during admission test. Since they have never heard of this academic program, they are not sure about the prospects of social work graduates, which prevent them from preferring admission in social work program (Samad and Das, 2014, pp. 74 & 86). Their preference centers on economics, English literature, public administration, political science etc., as they perhaps consider their prospects could be better with these academic programs. Those who take admission in social work program, eventually do it by chance but generally not by choice. Therefore, many of the students after taking admission in social work programs remain depressed for quite a long time because of mostly family members, relatives, friends and neighbors underrate this academic program, even in some cases students of social work are being ridiculed for being admitted in an unfamiliar and obscure academic program. The students often fail to perceive the available fields of social work practice or the possible areas of employment for social work graduates.
Is it sociology?
There are numerous misunderstandings around social work academic program. Many highly educated persons think social work similar to sociology, or a branch of sociology, or something like sociology, or it is something below sociology (Das, 2012). There is perhaps nobody outside social work who has ever heard of social work as profession. Non-social workers do not understand the meaning of professional social work. They generally feel confused when social workers compared with lawyers, doctors or any other professionals. People generally consider social work merely a voluntary activity, not based on any academic training. Social work is considered as altruistic, humanitarian and pious activity, but not a profession as such. The state does not see any reason to recognize social work as a profession.
Where is the contribution of social work?
Is there any contribution of social work visible in Bangladesh? It would be difficult to find out. The practitioners and academicians could not contribute anything special which might be described as sole contributions of social work in Bangladesh (Samad & Das, 2014, p. 81).
Rather, non-social workers working in the fields of social work have made tremendous contributions to empower the marginalized population that has been well recognized worldwide. To name a few, Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank or Fazle Hosen Abed of BRAC have indeed made a breakthrough to address the situation of poverty in the country. Their contributions are naturally not regarded as something from social work, rather considered as NGO activities for the empowerment of downtrodden. Social work academics and researchers could not do much justice to present social work as vibrant academic program that produces competent professional social workers. They did not contribute substantially in terms of generating valuable literature that can enhance the possibility of establishing social work as an independent discipline and a profession (Samad and Das, 2014, p. 75; Das, 2012). The academicians have still failed to prepare a manual for field practicum for the students of social work which is considered much required to learn as to how to practice social work in the fields. As a result, students do feel depressed at times because of confusion they confront while being placed for field practicum as apprentice social workers.
The prospects of social work as a human service profession in Bangladesh seem to be tremendous. Social work is obviously practiced in different settings by different qualified individuals including social work graduates, but the practice is more of informal and scattered (Das, 2012). Most importantly, public recognition of this practice of social work is zero. Even the social work graduates employed in different organizations work under multiple designations like development worker, project manager, project coordinator, program organizer, counselor, trainer, teacher, welfare officer and so on. Many of them have gained enormous reputation for their excellent performance in the respective fields. But people hardly know that those who excel in their assigned duties and responsibilities are mostly social work graduates. Since social work is not recognized as a profession and its familiarity is low, graduates cannot practice it independently. Many social work graduates having been well placed in different organizations do not identify them with social work background. Some of them try to hide their academic background as social work because of its low status in the society (Das, 2018, p. 34). Common people feel that social work is something voluntary and charity-based religious services to serve the weakest section of the society. Practitioners, academicians and researchers are yet to prove the strengths, effectiveness and essentiality of social work education, practice and profession.
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Profile of social work department:
Addressing the demand of professional social workers in the development fields of Sylhet region, the department of Social Work formally started its academic program with three faculty members and two non-academic staffs from the session of 1993-1994 at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST). Professor M. Habibur Rahman, who later became the Vice- Chancellor of this University, shouldered the responsibility as the founder head of the department. From its inception the academic activities of the department started drawing attention of different stakeholders including development organizations and social work academia of different universities in the country and abroad. It was mainly possible due to the effective international training received by faculty members and their team spirit guided by the founder head. The first MSS graduates came out in 1997 and their contributions to the local communities and in the national level attracted the whole academic community in the university and the employers in different sectors (https://www.sust.edu/d/scw). The school has so far produced around 15000 social work graduates, who have been employed in different government, non-government and international organizations at home and abroad.