Empowering Women in the Middle East by Psychosocial Interventions : Can provision of learning spaces in individual and group sessions and teaching of coping strategies improve women’s quality of life?

Abstract: Background: This study set out to construct a conceptual framework that can be used in social work with women in the Middle East and other settings where women have limited access to resources, which, as a result, limits their decision-making capacity. The framework has both an empirical and a theoretical base. The empirical base comprises data from two intervention projects among Iranian women: single mothers and newly married women. The theoretical base is drawn from relevant psychological and social work theories and is harmonized with the empirical data. Psychosocial intervention projects, based on learning spaces for coping strategies, were organized to assess if Iranian women could use a problemsolving model (i.e. focused on cognition and emotion simultaneously) to effectively and independently meet challenges in their own lives and improve their quality of life.Methods: Descriptive qualitative and quasi-experimental quantitative methods were used for data collection and analysis. Forty-four single mothers and newly married women from social welfare services were allocated to nonrandomized intervention and comparison groups. The intervention groups were invited to participate in a 7-month psychosocial intervention; the comparison groups were provided with treatment as usual by the social welfare services. The WHOQOL-BREF instrument was used to measure quality of life, comparing each intervention groups’ scores before and after the intervention and with respective comparison groups. In addition, content analysis and constant comparative analysis were performed on the qualitative data collected from the participants before, during and after the intervention.Results: The results of the quasi-experimental study show significant and large effect sizes among the women exposed to the intervention. Small and not statistically significant effect sizes were observed in the women provided with traditional social welfare services. Accordingly, teaching coping strategies can be a means to improve the quality of life of women in societies where gender discrimination is prevalent. The qualitative findings from the Iranian projects illustrate a process of change —socio-cognitive empowerment— with regard to thinking, feeling and acting among women during and after the intervention. The women developed a number of mental capacities essential to coping and life management. All women used the model effectively, and consequently, made more deliberate decisions to improve their life situations.Conclusion: The practical lessons from the Iranian projects highlight the possibilities of empowering women through fostering mindfulness and deliberate decision making as well as achieving consciousness. This study provides provisional evidence that psychosocial intervention projects, based on learning spaces for coping strategies, can help many clients to achieve their goals and improve their quality of life, and that this psychosocial intervention project can be a useful model for social work practice with women in the Middle East. The conceptual framework can help social workers to bridge the gap between theory and practice: that is, to draw from existing social work theories and, through the psychosocial intervention model, better apply this knowledge in their practical work with women in challenging social environments.