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French Version

Social workers call on government to legitimize profession (Daily Star)

Hundreds attend syndicate's annual conference

Social workers in Lebanon are calling for the government to recognize their profession, independent of other fields such as sociology, and they want it in writing.

"Social work needs to be officially recognized through legislation," said Houda Sleem, the president of the Social Work Syndicate in Lebanon at the group's annual conference held on Monday.

"To protect the social workers and the communities they serve, social work needs to be recognized as a profession with set standards," added Sleem, as she looked over at Ghazi Zeaiter, the social affairs minister who attended the conference as a guest of honor.

Copies of what the syndicate calls its code of ethics were sent to the deputy of Parliament's Social Health committee two years ago. The document outlines the main principles of the social work profession and the practice's standards to be applied to those in the field.

"The government and other organizations don't exactly understand what social work is, they confuse it with sociology or psychology and don't realize that social work is a practical profession," Sleem said.

Sociology is an academic discipline that focuses on preparing students for research of various social issues, while social work is a professional activity that seeks to intervene in the relationships between people and their environment in order to improve the living standards and the general well-being of individuals and communities.

Hundreds of social workers attended the syndicate's annual conference on Monday wearing a green ribbon pin as a symbol of "peace that comes as a reward from social work."

But there was a conspicuous absence of male attendees.

"You can blame the French system for discouraging men from studying social work. The profession was taught as "assistant social worker," which in French has a female connotation and hence men didn't dare sign up for what seemed like a woman's job," explained Sleem.

Back in the 1970s, only a handful of women worked as social workers in Lebanon, among them Mariee Rose Dahdah Merheb.

"Back then, feeding, teaching hygiene and accommodating the displaced from the civil war were our main priority," said Merheb, who has worked as a social worker for over 30 years.

"Now, the needs have increased and have become more complicated while the funds have decreased. Because there were so many donations given after the war, people now give less and think we have solved all the problems," Merheb said.

Merheb added that there isn't a day that goes by that she doesn't meet someone who begs her for "just LL1,000" to buy food.

"Often all I and the other social workers can do is listen to people and their problems. It is really heart-breaking," she said.

Today, there are some 3,000 social workers in Lebanon, "but still that is not enough," said May Hazaz, director of the social work program at the Saint Joseph University.

"The needs are so great and social workers are in great demand but opportunities for hired work are limited," said Hazaz, who is worried about her students' chances of finding paying jobs once they graduate.

"Social workers can't live on volunteer work. So the government needs to open up positions in the public sector and in ministries specifically to be filled by social workers," she said.

"Many jobs that should be done by social workers are being filled by people who are not qualified for it like psychologists or sociologists," Hazaz added.

Again, this goes back to the "problem of definition," said Hazaz, who, like Sleem, wants the state to pass legislation defining social work as a profession with "set values and rights."

Beirut 07-02-2005
Rym Ghazal
The Daily Star

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