News and Events

Understanding Youth Social Problems and Social Work in the Middle East

September 2003 — Islamic countries increasingly confront a set of social problems affecting their youth, such as teenage runaways, violence in the family, drug addiction, high risk behavior, crime, prostitution, alcohol abuse - phenomena associated with modernity, urbanization, population growth and economic strain. Some Middle Eastern countries initially find it difficult to acknowledge, let alone address, such problems. On the level of values, there appear to be three principle obstacles preventing an open acknowledgement of the kinds of social problems listed above:

  1. The belief that these are problems an Islamic society "should not have."
  2. The posture that if they do occur, they should be dealt with privately by the family/clan, neighborhood or community.
  3. The fear is that by helping the affected person, you are validating their conduct and thereby encouraging others to imitate them.

This is changing, of necessity. Families and communities are not able to absorb and "manage" problems as they did in the past, in part because traditional structures are no longer intact, and in part because the traditional solutions are increasingly overlaid by new beliefs about what is legal, ethical and appropriate. At the same time, the scope of the problems does not allow them to continue to be swept under the rug. Concepts of human rights, combined with legal reforms and exposure to international debate of the relevant issues, are impacting regional perceptions of these problems.

The increased willingness to acknowledge and address sensitive social problems is reflected both in official government reporting, which includes the recognition that these problems exist and are significant, and in public discussion of formerly taboo issues in popular media. (See examples at right on teen runaways and family violence from "Zanan", an Iranian Women's magazine.)

The Islamic Republic of Iran has become relatively open in its discussion of youth drug addiction, teenage runaways and underage prostitution. "Speaking openly about such problems is a first step to combating them," an adviser to the Ministry of Education, Hassan Bolkhari, explained this shift in policy. "Formerly, the government's approach was idealistic. Fortunately, now we see a greater degree of realism." 1

In spring 2003, IMEY hosted a visit by Manizeh Bano, Director of the Pakistani welfare NGO “Sahil”. This group has chosen to deal with a particularly sensitive issue, child sex abuse. Their approach combines elements derived from international programs, which Sahil is attempting to adapt to conditions in Pakistan – counseling, legal aid, shelter, self-help groups, training of police, and education. (read an interview with Manizeh Bano about Sahil.)

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, this center also offers therapy to address stress and trauma. (View selected documents from his center.)

As these social problems become more public, different sets of actors are emerging, with different approaches for addressing them. They include professional social workers employed by state agencies; charitable organizations often founded and run by members of the national business or political elites; international organizations and NGOS; political parties; the “official” religious establishment; extremist religious groups; political and ideological movements, including those affiliated with terrorism, who may use social programs for community “outreach” and recruitment. Each of these has a distinct view of what would comprise the best “solution” to the problems of their beneficiaries, and the methods to achieve that solution. Many have agendas that go far beyond the desire to help troubled youths.

Related Article:

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Volume 7, Number 154, Thursday, 14 August, 2003.

"It is difficult for some people to imagine the extent of drug abuse in Iran, an Islamic theocracy. Yet on 21 July an official in Iran's Drug Control Headquarters, Mohammad Hussein Khademi, said almost 3 million people out of a total population of about 67 million have addiction problems, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported on 27 July. And on 12 August Mohsen Vazirian, an official with the Ministry of Health, Treatment, and Medical Education, described the distribution of free syringes to Tehran drug addicts…"

Read article in its entirety at

1 Ali Akbar Dareini, "Iran Acknowledges Prostitution, Drug Abuse Among Its People," AP, Tehran 10 July 2000; BBC News, "Drugs and prostitution 'soa' in Iran,"