Youth Wellbeing in the Occupied Palestinian Territory: An in-depth, multi-level and disciplinary study into wellbeing and gender equality among Palestinian youth

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Youth, a group which are often defined as young women and young men between the ages of 15 and 29, account for nearly one-sixth of the world’s population, and this proportion is expected to increase over the coming decades. This population is important, not only because it constitutes a significant and growing proportion of the global population but also because youth represent the future of society, and can play an important role in social, political, and economic development both nationally and globally. Importantly, many youth are currently facing significant internal and external challenges and stressors, often as a result of broader structural factors.

In the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), young women and men aged 15–29 constitute roughly one-third of the population. Despite the importance of this group in influencing the future direction of society, Palestinian youth face significant difficulties and obstacles, including high rates of unemployment, poor living conditions, and heightened insecurity stemming from the Israeli military occupation. Furthermore, within Palestinian society, youth are marginalized and excluded from full participation in public and political life. They also face growing social pressures caused by conservativism, patriarchy, gender discrimination, and unequal distribution of social and political power. These dimensions, including the occupation, shape the environment in which Palestinian youth live and through which they must navigate, and are likely to have adverse impacts on their wellbeing.

Women in the OPT, just like in other societies, face gender inequality and marginalization. Many changes need to be made in the spheres of education, the labour force, wages, and decision making to increase the inclusion of women. Palestinian women have double the disadvantages compared with men, as they have to deal both with gender inequality within their society and with the Israeli occupation, which affects their physical and mental wellbeing. Despite improvements in education for women, more progress is needed to increase their participation in leadership roles and in the labour force. Only 19.6% of women were engaged in the formal labour force in 2017, in contrast with their heavy burden of domestic and care work. Furthermore, gender dynamics are important to understanding how young women and men experience equality and equity, which are influenced by a complex web of cultural and social factors.

Although more attention has been paid recently to youth as a sector in research in the OPT, the data available remain limited. Moreover, the majority of research done on youth exclusion has utilized uni-dimensional and uni-level analytical approaches. Much of the existing literature focuses on the economic dimension of exclusion (particularly unemployment), while a limited number of studies have, for example, highlighted how exclusion from the labour market leads to or is influenced by other forms of exclusion which operate at different levels, from the state and society to the family (macro, meso, micro).

Existing literature on Palestinian youth and unemployment utilizes mainly the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) Labour Force and other such surveys, including the Palestinian Family Health Survey, the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), and the Socio-Economic and Food Security Survey (SEFSec). Several other reports have been published by local organizations that compile information from other reports. An example is a 2013 report by the Sharek Youth Forum, which is based on a literature review that combines information from various sources. Such reports present a general picture of the conditions faced by youth, which is necessary but not sufficient: the qualitative work on which they mainly depend can provide important insights, but these cannot be generalized to the larger population of youth. Additionally, such reports often rely on descriptive statistics and cannot be used for comparisons between groups. Therefore, there is a need to conduct more in-depth statistical analysis of rich data sets, such as the nationally representative Power2Youth study.

This study presents an important opportunity to fill this knowledge gap by offering a critical understanding of the current state of youth in the OPT through a comprehensive interdisciplinary and multi-level approach. By combining the economic, political, and socio-cultural spheres, and conducting analysis at the macro (policy/institutional), meso (organizational), and micro (individual) levels, it looks to explore the root causes and complex dynamics of the processes involved in youth exclusion from (and inclusion in) the labour market and civic/political life, while investigating the potentially transformative effect of youth agency.

The processes of exclusion/inclusion take place at the intersection of different axes of power stemming from privileges and disadvantages, structured not only on a generational divide but also on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, and other social divides that create differences and inequalities among youth themselves. It is important to explore the intersectionality of various factors in creating different subgroups of young women and men, and to look into interventions and policies that meet the interests and needs that emerge from this intersectionality. Although some of the existing literature looks at gender as a defining factor, a data analysis needs not only to have a specific focus on gender but also requires focus on the interlinked factors that contribute to oppression and discrimination.

The Institute of Community and Public Health (ICPH) at Birzeit University is a research and teaching institution that is also a partner of Power2Youth (P2Y) in the OPT. P2Y is a consortium of research and academic institutions in different disciplines based in EU member states, Switzerland, Norway, and South East Mediterranean (SEM) countries; it was formed to explore the dynamics of youth exclusion and prospects for the transformative agency of youth in the SEM region. As part of the project, a survey was conducted in the West Bank) and the Gaza Strip among a representative sample of Palestinian youth, focusing on the narrower age range of 18–29 rather than the broader 15–29 range used by the PCBS. The total sample size was 1,353, and about 53% of these were young women. ICPH conducted further in-depth statistical analysis and additional qualitative fieldwork to inform the analysis and elucidate the findings. By analysing the data, the ICPH team was able to identify the main factors associated with young people’s wellbeing, or lack thereof, with the aim of providing policy makers and practitioners with an understanding of the conditions faced by Palestinian youth, as well as the evidence needed for policy making and interventions.

This study focuses on two important aspects—wellbeing and gender relations. These two aspects were chosen for their importance, particularly in the context of the OPT, where youth are especially vulnerable and where wellbeing is threatened. Understanding the needs of youth and the factors that determine their wellbeing is important in formulating policies that invest in youth. The study draws on the World Health Organization (WHO)’s definition of wellbeing, which views wellbeing as positive mental health whereby each individual realizes their potential, can cope with the stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community. Furthermore, gender dynamics are important to understanding how young women and men experience inclusion and exclusion. They also inform how young people navigate a complex web of cultural, social, political, and economic factors and dynamics in their lives and how they overcome these challenges.

Generally, there is a dearth of research on gender equality and equity issues from the perspective of youth. As for wellbeing, other than generalities, in a review of the literature the research team was unable to locate any analysis related to the wellbeing of young Palestinians or the factors associated with wellbeing. In other words, the analyses included in this study will contribute to the identification of actual priority area needs for Palestinian youth that require action by stakeholders, and will identify particular groups of youth who may be particularly vulnerable. Furthermore, the qualitative part of the study draws on young people’s own words and experiences. As part of the validation and dissemination process, the research team conducted participatory dissemination workshops in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip in order to present the findings of the study, share and discuss these findings directly with youth and other stakeholders, and generate policy recommendations based on the priorities identified by youth themselves.