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IMEY Interview with Salah Abdel Shafi, Gaza Community Mental Health Programme

November 2003 — Some of the problems confronting Middle Eastern youth stem from the political violence and instability impacting their societies, from the trauma of experiencing childhood and adolescence under circumstances of war, violence and insecurity. Salah Abdel Shafi, from the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, told IMEY about his center's approach:

"Besides research, our program includes vocational training. Most employed women are currently found in teaching, banking, insurance companies, or working for NGOs. They also find employment in the garment industry, and in agriculture. Participation was higher before the current intifada, when seasonal work in Israel was still available, primarily in agriculture and to some extent in the garment industry.

"We are trying to develop some alternative, new employment venues for women. For example, we train them to make video films. Since weddings are celebrated separately by the male and female guests, there is an opportunity for women to film the wedding video on the bride's side, as a man would not be allowed in the gathering.

"Another focus of our work is to teach women how to lobby. Palestinian women are very active in civil society, but they are not represented in the political structures. Our first significant lobbying effort was in 1995/96. At the time women could not get a passport without a signature from their father or brother. We assisted the women in organizing a campaign of letter-writing, public meetings, meetings with politicians, and rallies, to lobby the PNA to change this. Other topics on the agenda are draft laws addressing the problem of honor killings — efforts to equate them with murder instead of giving them special lenient treatment, personal code issues such as inheritance, and laws to raise the age of marriage. These are typical issues of significance to women in this region. The most important existing women's organizations are the Women's Affairs Center, the Women's Technical Committees, the General Union of Palestinian Women (PA and PLO Affiliated), the Gaza Student Union (segregated), and the West Bank Student Union (co-ed).

"We do considerable research on trauma and psychological issues. This is a topic of great significance for our population When we recently conducted a study of PTSD, of the 9-19 year olds we looked at, only 2,5% manifested no symptoms. In terms of offering counseling and assistance, the positive aspect is that during times of crisis, we have found that such programs are well accepted. Because so many people are affected, it is viewed as a kind of collective trauma, and the individual is not stigmatized for seeking help. However, once the immediate conflict is over, this ends, and the person is once again affected as an individual, and less likely to come for counseling.

"As for the return to religion among Palestinians, our observation is that this is in large part a practical matter. For the last three years, shops have been closed, there has been nowhere to go and to meet and talk with others, so people started going to the mosques."