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Volume 49 Number 1
Edited by Sarah Callahan and Meagan Sweeney
Written by Karen Fanous, Alaa Aldoh, Farrah Helwa, Sherine Mikhail, The American University in Cairo
Egyptians have been living in a context of socio-political violence and turmoil since the uprisings of 2011. As part of our Advanced Community Psychology undergraduate course at The American University in Cairo, we wanted to develop a project that targets parents and their parenting styles in order to enhance child resilience and prevent mental health problems resulting from the community violence. While developing this project—which consisted of a short film and guide for non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and mental health professionals—several cultural considerations and dilemmas were raised.
Egypt has been known for many things, such as pyramids and the pharaohs. After the 2011 uprisings in Egypt, this quickly changed. In 18 days, the country and the lives of the people in it transformed in ways they hadn’t imagined. After millions of Egyptians protested against the president and the government, the president was eventually ousted, leaving behind political vacuum. Given the ex-president’s monopoly over power for around 30 years, it was no surprise when several political parties, as well as the military, began to compete for power over the country. This political climate was accompanied by an increase in violence both in political and in general community settings with unprecedented death and arrest rates.
Children were increasingly exposed to this violence through multiple ways, such as witnessing violence on the streets, watching it on television, and hearing about it from classmates and family members. Naturally, many parents became more concerned over the wellbeing of their children and worried about their children becoming traumatized. According to a survey we conducted, over 90% of parents found it difficult to raise their children after the uprisings in Egypt. While the demand for support increased, the supply had not changed to match the needs of the parents and children. Limited efforts were being made by the government, non-profits, and professionals to tackle the challenges being faced by parents.
What We Wanted To Do
Based on the apparent need for parental support, we decided to design a community-based prevention project in order to identify the challenges parents and children faced, how they are coping, and the best ways to support them. Our program aimed to prevent child mental health problems by giving advice to parents on how to enhance resilience in their children.
How We Did It
To begin with, we conducted a thorough literature review. The main issues investigated included the current situation in Egypt, the effect of exposure to violence on children, how to prevent child trauma and other violence-related mental health problems, how to build resilience, as well as related intervention programs that had been done before. Unfortunately, we found minimal literature on socio-political violence or community violence. The literature’s focus is primarily on individual rather than community traumas, and when addressing the community, the context is often war or disasters rather than the pervasive fear and confusion in society.
Moreover, many of the interventions proposed were inapplicable to the Egyptian context like suggesting integrating policemen in the process of identifying traumatized children (Lieberman & DeMartino, 2006). Therefore, we decided to conduct various interviews with mental health professionals, researchers, and people working in the field of child development and protection including both NGO’s as well as a governmental agency. The purpose of these interviews was to gain more knowledge about what is actually needed, what the cultural considerations are, and what kind of prevention approach would be most suitable.
Furthermore, a convenience sample survey was completed by 156 parents across Cairo, online and in hardcopy, identifying the following: a) demographics and living arrangements of the parents and their children, b) types of violence they had been exposed to and affected by the most, c) how parents and children coped with aforementioned exposure, d) how this affected their parenting abilities, e) what signs children showed suggesting that they were affected by the violence, f) what kinds of information the parents wished to receive regarding this topic, and g) their most preferred medium for receiving the aforementioned information.
This information was then used to create a comprehensive guidebook for NGO’s and mental health professionals that included information on parenting strategies to support child resilience, as well as a short movie entitled Matkhafsh (Don’t Be Afraid). Moreover, a public conference was held to launch and disseminate the guidebook and short movie.
What We Needed To Consider
Given that we are living in a Middle Eastern culture in general, and in Egypt post 2011 in specific, there were few things we needed to consider.
As Egyptians, our rich social traditions and culture spread patriarchy throughout all aspects of society (Sharabi, 1988). The obvious presence of patriarchal culture was one of our major considerations when developing Matkhafsh. Because of this, we intentionally casted a boy to play the role of a child who struggles when exposed to community and political violence. We hoped that parents could empathize with the boy’s emotions and generalize them to all children rather than attributing them to weak feminine emotions if it were a girl.
Moreover, we casted a mother figure to display how various actions of primary caregivers could affect their child’s sense of security and ability to build resilience during times of crisis and turmoil. This is due to the presumption that female figures, particularly mothers, in Arab societies habitually adopt the role of the caretaker, thus resonating well with the general public’s reality.
When selecting a candidate to narrate the video, we agreed that a male voice would be ideal to represent an informative and inspiring direction to the film. Not only would a male voiceover gain credible approval from the audience, but it would also show that caretaking and child protection are both the mother’s and father’s responsibility.
Classism and Division of Classes
Another salient cultural aspect that we needed to account for is the strongly divided society along class lines. Egypt is facing significant social inequality levels where the richest 10% own about 73% of the country’s wealth (Kiersz, 2014). Unfortunately, the income differential is rooted in prejudice and distrust between the classes, resulting in classism and extreme perceptions of inequality. From 2000 to 2009, the World Values Surveys showed a significant increase in aversion towards income inequality among Egyptians (Hlasny & Verme, 2013). This was even apparent during the last presidential and parliamentary voting patterns in which we saw that some members of high-income groups voiced concern about allowing low-income groups to vote, claiming that their choice will always doom the country.
We discussed these challenges when deciding what socio-economic level should be depicted by the characters in the short film, in order for more viewers to identify with it. We therefore portrayed a middle class family whose house and clothing wouldn’t cause an identification obstacle to most Egyptians. In one of the scenes, we had a plain background with minimal furniture in order to focus the attention on the scene while avoiding other influencing factors that may allow class prejudice to reduce the impact of the video. We also wanted to avoid relating community violence to a certain class, indicating that community violence is a national phenomenon and is not limited to certain regions or groups. Moreover, the video was in colloquial Arabic, using vocabulary and a dialect that anyone can understand. Lastly, in the data collection itself, we targeted both lower and higher income groups in order to represent the opinions and needs of a wider array of experiences.
Given the context of political instability and tension, and lack of political security, we made sure that our products targeted overall community violence and not specific political violence under a certain regime. We didn’t take political sides and even the scenes of violence we portrayed in the video couldn’t be identified with a certain era of leadership. Moreover, for the data collection and out of fear from the political authorities, we minimized data collection on the streets, asking NGOs to help us collect data from lower-income areas and depending on online dissemination of the survey to target more affluent groups.
In the End…
Our project showed that it is hard to apply Western models of intervention to Middle Eastern cultures, and that many cultural and contextual aspects need to be taken into consideration for a program to be effective and reach the target audience. These included patriarchy, class division, and socio-political insecurity. Access the video and guidebook can be found at http://auceguypt.edu/huss/sape/psyc/Pages/Parenting-in-Times-of-Turmoil.aspx.
Hlasny, V., & Verme, P. (2013). Top incomes and the measurement of inequality in Egypt. Policy Research Working Papers, 6557.
Kiersz, A. (2014, October 14). Here’s where there richest 10% control the build of country’s wealth. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/top-ten-percent-wealth-world-maps-2014-10
Lieberman, A. & DeMartino, R. (2006). Interventions for children exposed to violence. Retrieved from http://nctsn.org/nctsn_assets/pdfs/reports/HarrisManuscript.pdf
Sharabi, H. (1988). Neopatriarchy: A theory of distorted change in Arab society. New York: Oxford University Press.
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