KALIHATI, BANGLADESH -- Nujma Akhter glides confidently between the thatch huts and along the dirt paths that snake through the bright green rice paddies of this remote farming community, dispensing the tools of her trade: condoms, birth control pills and other contraceptives.

In a society where talk of sex is taboo, where women have few rights and are often confined to their homesteads, Akhter stops at every hut to talk about birth control, and no one seems to mind.

"Almost everybody here is using some kind of protection," said Akhter, who visits every family once a month, even if the wife has been sterilized. "She could have side effects or complications. It is our moral obligation to help her if she has problems. We are not just family planners."

Here in Bangladesh -- an overwhelmingly Muslim country whose history is synonymous with overcrowding, poverty and starvation -- Akhter is a small but critical part of a growing success story. Defying the conventional wisdom of decades, and against all odds, this country is stemming its population growth with family planning measures that experts say could be a model for the rest of the developing world.

The achievement seems improbable. Like most other Third World countries, all the prerequisites for out-of-control growth are here. There is high poverty and illiteracy. The status of women is low, so reproductive decisions are often made by husbands and in-laws. There is a strong cultural preference for sons and high infant mortality, both of which encourage couples to bear more children. About 80 percent of the people are farmers, who generally want more hands to help in the fields. There are no institutional or government security nets, so the more children you have, the more comfortable your retirement.

Yet despite these pressures, Bangladesh is the only country of the 20 least developed nations of the world that has significantly reduced its fertility rate. In 1975, the typical Bangladeshi woman had 7.4 children. Today, she has fewer than four.

The Bangladesh family planning program has succeeded where others have failed, according to numerous reports and interviews with a variety of development experts, primarily because of a simple but often elusive ingredient: unwavering political commitment. In 1976 the government declared that population control was the nation's number one priority, and the message has never changed.

This priority has led to a willingness to try almost anything, and the government has offered virtually unfettered access to Western aid organizations, which have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into experimental family planning programs across the country.

Not that Bangladesh has tamed the population tiger. With 120 million people crammed into an area the size of Wisconsin, Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world.

And even with the progress that has been made in reducing birth rates here, there are still so many people of reproductive age that a built-in population "wave" is just over the horizon. Even the most optimistic forecasts predict the population will grow to at least 160 million people by 2010 and to more than 210 million by 2025.

"Under these circumstances, life cannot be sustained at any reasonable standard," said Alamgir M.A. Kabir, one of the pioneers of the Family Planning Association of Bangladesh when it was founded under a different name in 1953.

In the early 1970s, social planners coined a phrase: "Development is the best contraceptive." It meant that if you developed a society -- raised literacy, alleviated poverty, disease and hunger, provided decent jobs and housing and generally raised living standards -- people would find large families unnecessary and fertility rates would decline. The concept implied that development was a prerequisite to lowering birth rates.

In Bangladesh in the early '70s, population control was seen as a matter of national survival that could not wait for development. More than 1 million people died during the country's war for independence in 1971. Tens of thousands more died every year in floods, cyclones and tidal waves. Then famine stuck in 1974, and images of starving Bangladeshi children were burned into a generation's conscience.

In Dhaka in 1973, the new government finalized its first five-year development plan, which insisted that "no civilized measure would be too drastic to keep the population of Bangladesh on the smaller side of {150 million people} for sheer ecological viability of the nation."

Female social workers fanned out into the villages and the slums, where residents, shocked at the sight of unescorted women, spat and threw rocks at them. The government redoubled its public relations campaign, enlisting the help of the Muslim clergy.

Officials say the outreach paid huge dividends; while there are many clerics who do not approve of birth control, no organized religious opposition to the country's family planning program has emerged.

Bangladeshis saw in their own lives that food was short, the family was constantly sick, there was no money for clothes or shelter, and land was being subdivided among so many relatives that no one could make a living. Even to the uneducated, it was becoming clear that the cost of raising a child was starting to outweigh the benefits the child would return.

"It was a conscious decision on our part to wait 17 years before having our first child," said Saman Ali, who lives in the village of Ratonbariss, about 50 miles northeast of Dhaka. "I was unemployed, and I decided: Until I get a job, I'll never have a baby."

After being hired as a road foreman seven years ago, Ali and his wife, Shafia Khatun, had a son, and now they would like a second child, "but only when we can afford it."

Slowly, the demand for contraceptives built. In 1974 the Social Marketing Co. was launched, a private, nonprofit company that provided contraceptives at affordable prices. Today it has grown into the largest such organization in the world, selling each year, at subsidized rates, about 150 million condoms and 10 million monthly packets of birth control pills. About 44 percent of all couples in Bangladesh now use some form of contraceptive, up from just 3.7 percent in 1968.

In the end, what has made the Bangladeshi program stand out is its ability to adapt. And nowhere is this better illustrated than in the one-on-one counseling provided by an army of more than 35,000 female family planning workers who roam the countryside and the alleyways, debunking myths about childbirth, peddling contraceptives, talking about sanitation, urging women to space the births of their children a few years apart, taking children to be immunized, encouraging education for girls and jobs for their mothers.

The cadre of counselors, and the independence they have in taking their services to women who are confined to their homes, is the innovation that is chiefly credited with lowering Bangladesh's fertility rate.

"In Bangladesh, women are not comfortable going out to get services. They don't go out to shop, they don't feel comfortable talking about family planning or their sex life with a man, and therefore our program brings services to the doorstep of the woman," said Mufaweza Khan, executive director of Concerned Women for Family Planning, which has trained more than 12,000 door-to-door counselors.

The program increasingly is moving beyond population control and family planning to encompass all aspects of maternal and child health, education and employment for women, reflecting the belief held by experts that the best long-term way to reduce fertility rates in the Third World is to raise the status of women.

enthusiastic as the experts remain about the Bangladeshi experience, they admit that the future sometimes looks dim. The preference for sons remains strong, children are still considered the best retirement plan, supplies of contraceptives are erratic, the status of women is low.

"Everything possible to try has been tried in Bangladesh; it's one of the most researched countries in the world," said Philip R.S. Gowers, a World Bank population and health expert in Dhaka, who estimated that Bangladesh could have as many as 250 million people by 2080. "Sure, there are a lot of problems, but if the success is pointed out in relative terms, you can say, 'If Bangladesh can do it, you can do it.' "

Women in a Bangladeshi village listen to lecture by a visiting birth control specialist.

Saman Ali and his wife, Shafia Khatun, outside their hut in Ratonbariss, would like a second child, "but only when we can afford it."

Family planning volunteer Nujma Akhter makes her monthly rounds, dispensing contraceptives and advice in Kalihati.