Volunteering enhances life satisfaction among Syrian refugee women

A new study shows that participating in a volunteer program to promote literacy in children helped Syrian refugee women feel more satisfied with their lives.
 A We Love Reading ambassador reads aloud to children in a mosque in Karak, Jordan.

A We Love Reading ambassador reads aloud to children in a mosque in Karak, Jordan. The volunteer program seeks to promote childhood literacy.

Reading aloud to children through a community-based volunteer program significantly boosted levels of life satisfaction in Syrian refugee women living in Jordan, providing them a tangible sense of fulfillment, agency, and human dignity, according to a new study co-authored by Yale anthropologist Catherine Panter-Brick.

Volunteering had no meaningful effect on women’s psychological empowerment or wellbeing, the study’s two other primary measures.

The study, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, addresses gaps in evidence regarding what actual benefits are accrued to individual volunteers, testing a widely held view that volunteering programs help people from marginalized socio-economic groups to engage meaningfully with society in ways that support their inclusion and participation.

For the study, the researchers used a randomized-controlled trial of 105 Syrian refugee women from poor households to evaluate the effects of participating in We Love Reading, a program developed in Amman that seeks to establish informal libraries and trains volunteers to read aloud to children. Measured outcomes included life satisfaction, psychological empowerment, and wellbeing.

The study also featured thematic analysis of group discussions to clarify how Syrian women perceive key constructs, such as empowerment and life satisfaction, in the context of their lived experience. The participants also engaged in cognitive mapping — a visual approach to establish the causal relationships drawn between real-world circumstances, volunteering programs, and psychological outcomes.

The randomized-controlled trial revealed that life satisfaction — which involves the sense of fulfillment in achieving one’s goals — was the only one of the three primary measures to show significant improvements from participation in the volunteer program. Levels of empowerment and wellbeing were not impacted by engagement in the program.

The finding may demonstrate the difficulty in changing women’s sense of empowerment and wellbeing, especially in the case of Syrian refugee women, who often are expected to focus their activities within the home, said Panter-Brick, the study’s lead author. These women, she said, often have few opportunities to work, learn, and socially interact in the community at large.

Perhaps in the absence of structural societal change, it’s simply easier to feel an improved sense of life satisfaction through volunteering activities, than to boost levels of empowerment or wellbeing,” said Panter-Brick, the Bruce A. and Davi-Ellen Chabner Professor of Anthropology, Health, and Global Affairs, who has appointments at the Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs and Yale’s Faculty of Arts of Sciences. “We show qualitatively, quantitatively, and visually that the ability to volunteer in the volunteer reading program enhances the women’s life satisfaction. Yet they are still ensnared in the same confining social structures that severely limit their opportunities to feel empowered.”

The study is the first to rigorously test the effects of a volunteering program on refugee women in the Middle East. It builds on prior research, also co-led by Panter-Brick, which provided evidence that engaging in volunteering work helps poor women to diversify their social networks, boosting empowerment through opportunities to learn and socially interact. 

Concepts of empowerment and life satisfaction are often used in global surveys, but they are typically very ill-defined, Panter-Brick said. For the new study, the researchers examined these concepts to better define what they mean in the local culture and local context, she said.

According to the findings, the women emphasized the importance of reaching goals, having “the full right to act,” the freedom to make decisions, willingness to pursue goals, and determination. They explained that building their empowerment and agency was a main driver of life satisfaction, and that volunteering boosted the resolve of “not giving up” on life goals, made them feel more visible in the community, and provided “proof of existence,” according to the study.

That they described empowerment as ‘proof of existence’ is very compelling,” said Panter-Brick, who also directs the Program on Conflict, Resilience, and Health at Yale’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. “In other words, the ability to leave the house, make plans, and have goals — even ones as simple as helping children in their community learn to read — is very meaningful to them.”

These insights can help identify the types of volunteer programs most likely to benefit women in socially and economically marginalized societies, she said.

The We Love Reading program, which received the UNESCO International Literacy Prize in 2017 and is active in over 65 countries, promotes social entrepreneurship within the communities where it operates. The community-based program encourages volunteers to lead “reading aloud” sessions in their neighborhoods, and as their schedules allow, making volunteering more convenient for women and fostering a sense of ownership of the program.

By contrast, many top-down volunteer programs run by government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which enlist women as unpaid volunteers to help deliver services, often require a commitment to set schedules and to work outside the neighborhood. This can become a burden to the volunteers rather than a source of life satisfaction, Panter-Brick noted.

The take-home message here is that we must be careful with the assumption that volunteer work is empowering for women in low-resource contexts, simply because it asks them to leave the house, working for minimal compensation to serve the larger needs of society,” she said. “That’s a very top-down and empirically questionable approach and leads to thinking that you’re empowering poor women, when they’re really just serving the purposes of an NGO or the state.”

The study was co-authored by Jannik J. Eggerman of the Yale Program on Conflict, Resilience and Health; Philip Jeffries of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada; Lina Qtaishat of the Tagyheer Organization in Amman, Jordan; Rana Dajani of the Hashemite University Zarqa in Jordan; and Praveen Kumar of Boston College.

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,