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Keywords:

  • Arab and Jewish women;
  • community-based health promotion;
  • lay health volunteers;
  • participatory approaches;
  • volunteering benefits

Abstract

Ambiguous feelings regarding women engaging in formal volunteering and concerns about their exploitation might explain the dearth of studies regarding the volunteering benefits specifically experienced by low socioeconomic status women. The current study examined benefits of volunteering among women participating in Women for Women’s Health (WWH), a lay health volunteers (LHV) programme implemented in Jewish and Arab communities in Israel, and aiming at empowering such women to become active volunteers and promote health activities in their communities. Two years after the introduction of WWH in each community, all 45 Jewish and 25 Arab volunteers were contacted by phone and invited to participate in the focus group discussions. Five focus group discussions were conducted with 25/42 Jewish volunteers in 2003 and four with 20/25 Arab volunteers in 2005. The other volunteers could not attend the scheduled meetings or became inactive for personal reasons. Four benefit categories were identified in both ethnic groups: 1. Personal benefits of having increased knowledge, feeling self-satisfaction, mastering new skills and performing healthy behaviours; 2. Group-social benefits of social support and sense of cohesion; 3. Purposive benefits of achieving the WWH mission and goals; 4. Sociopolitical benefits of learning to accept the other and experiencing increased solidarity. However, the relatively less privileged Arab volunteers enumerated more benefits within the personal and purposive categories. They also identified the unique sociocultural category of improving women’s status in the community by creating a legitimate space for women by public sphere involvement, traditionally solely a male domain. We conclude that volunteering in community-based health promotion programmes can be an empowering experience for lay women without being exploitative. Positive volunteering benefits will be even more discernable among underprivileged women who enjoy fewer opportunities in the personal and public domains. More studies need to explore volunteering benefits as reported by LHVs, making these benefits more visible and desirable.