Mental health psychosocial support programme
helps young girls and boys in the Gaza Strip to overcome trauma
Shahd Aljamal, 18, grew up in Gaza and experienced periods of intense conflict, like in May 2021 and more recently in August 2022 when some 450 people were displaced, and 8,500 have their homes damaged or destroyed, and 46 Palestinians killed, including 17 children. These periods of escalation deeply impacted her mental health, and that of her community of Jabaliya.
“I was an introverted child, usually isolating myself from the rest of my classmates,” says Shahd. “I hardly managed to develop friendships.” She was bullied, the young woman recalls, and feared the environment that restricted her activities and made sure she stayed at home.
Her situation changed when Shahd enrolled in an afterschool programme at a UNICEF-supported family centre at the age of 14.
“Everything we learned at the family centres somehow lived with us,” she says. Now, “whenever I have a challenge in life, such as studying for exams, I know how to calm myself and reduce my nervousness and anxiety.”
At the centre, Shahd learned life skills that helped her to advocate for her own needs and rights within her family, and to work on issues like bullying and child marriage in her community. Her brother had been very restrictive and didn’t want her to leave the house to participate in community activities. But Shahd convinced him that the activities were beneficial. The centre staff visited him to make sure that he understood the programme activities and would allow her to join in. Shahd herself became more confident and expressed her opinions at home.
“My brother changed. He listens to my sisters and me now – he respects our choices and supports us.”
RESCUED BY A SAFETY NET
Since 2009, UNICEF has been supporting 12 family centres across the Gaza Strip. Last year alone, the centres provided psychosocial services to over 15,200 children.
This programme provides a structured referral system that identifies early on children who are at risk of dropping out of school in order to work or get married, domestic abuse, and other dangers. Children who are in need of more specialized services – those exhibiting violent behaviour or facing violence at home, school, or work, for example – are provided a case manager who works with the children and their families to reduce the protection risk. Last year, 2,420 children, 41 per cent of them girls like Shahd, benefitted from individualized case management services by these centres.
Groups of 10-15 children come to the centres twice a week. They are able to play in safe areas, but also do structured group activities about child protection, and explosive remnants of war awareness and training.
Caregivers also attend the centres and benefit from child protection, positive parenting, and explosive remnants of war training and messages. In 2021, more than 3,670 caregivers, nearly 80 per cent of them women, were engaged in activities at the centres. A Community Child Protection Committee has been established at each centre from caregivers and community members. These groups meet monthly to encourage child protection in the community and address emerging child protection needs.
COPING WITH VIOLENCE
The Gaza Strip may not have seen its last war – conflict and tensions continue, and the closure prevents the free movement of people and goods.
But Shahd feels better prepared to cope with these periods of violence when they happen.
“In the last escalation, I was able to calm down my younger brother and cousins during the bombardment” she says.
“I have lived through four wars,” she states. “The support I received from the centre helped me and my family to deal with the consequences,” Shahd explains.
UNICEF supports the centres and, alongside partners, continues to scale up results for children to meet the psychosocial and protection needs of Gaza’s nearly one million children. The 2022 humanitarian needs overview estimates that 678,000 children (345,800 boys, 332,200 girls) across the State of Palestine are in need of child protection and MHPSS services. More than half (53 percent) of all children in Gaza are in need.
UNICEF continues supporting children’s psychological and protection needs, thanks to the continued support and strategic partnership with the Italian cooperation, OCHA, Arab Gulf Fund, Governments of Finland, Japan, and Belgium, in addition to UNICEF regular resources.