In Celebration of AUC’s Psychology Department Inauguration, Panel Discuss “Breaking Down Stigma Barriers”
March 8, 2018, Cairo – In celebration of the Department of Psychology inauguration at The American University in Cairo (AUC), the University held yesterday a panel discussion, titled "Breaking down Stigma Barriers”, where panelists tackled stigmas related to sexual/gender-based violence, persons with disabilities, mental illness, burn victims, orphans and other children in institutionalized care and the field of psychology in general.
In his opening remarks, Francis J. Ricciardone, AUC President, said: “The study of psychology, the study of the soul and the spirit, clearly is one of the most discernible ones that ought to be part of everybody’s formation at some level or another, whatever profession that we go out to do.” While psychology courses were introduced in AUC in the 1920s, it was in 1957 that the University witnessed the graduation of the first psychology major.
As AUC embarks on a new journey, with the establishment of an independent psychology department, Mona Amer, associate professor and chair of the department of psychology at AUC, said: “Psychology has a distinguished history in the country as Egypt has historically been the leader of psychology in the region across different universities and we really want to develop our knowledge base here, in particular towards more research in basic psychology, social, cognitive and developmental psychology.” Amer highlighted that, “community work is very integral to our department, so is the need to develop more sustainable methods for developing projects that have higher impact.”
Much of the community work of the psychology department has been conducted through collaborations with more than 40 partners, including multilateral organizations, nonprofit associations, hospitals, centers, schools and government offices. “The department of psychology has engaged in a long-term mutually beneficial collaboration with Wataneya Society for the Development of Orphanages to have a more sustainable impact,” said Amer. She also announced the second stage of the UNICEF grant, in partnership with the Ministry of Social Solidarity, to continue the training and capacity building of social workers.
Alumni, who studied psychology at AUC were also present at the inauguration, some as guests and others as speakers like Farah Shash ’09, ’13, chair of HarassMap, an award winning, volunteer based organization working to end sexual harassment in Egypt. Shash recounted how fighting stigmas related to sexual violence and harassment is an ongoing process. “We are planting the seeds,” she said. She recalls that in 2008, a young woman called Noha Roushdi, fought for filing a police report after a man harassed her in the street and succeeded, and how in 2010 when Harass Map started, sexual harassment incidents were called individual incidents. “Harass Map provided an online platform that allowed women and some men to share their stories and use this data and go to the public and break the stereotype.” Today, she added: “We have a recording mechanism, a law that criminalizes sexual harassment. People aren’t using the online platform as much as they used to, instead they are taking pictures of their harassers and sharing them on Facebook. This is what we think is the point, we are planting the seeds. Change is not easy, it takes years. It can backlash, but we are trying to give space for Egyptian women to tell their stories, practice their rights and be aware of their rights. Yes change might not happen right now, but it is happening.”
As Najla Nagib ’89,’14, founder and director of Inside - Out Counseling Center, who works on empowering women in marriage and divorce, education and work, also highlighted, through her work, counseling has positively affected burn victims. Her center has dedicated one day every week for free mental health services given to victims of burns. In discussing the stigma related to burn victims, Nagib highlighted that through her work with “the burn victims, ‘the untouchables of society’, all they wanted was reassurance and acceptance from society. The hardest part for them was to start counseling, however, it is through safe connection and hope that we can help.”
Hala Abd Alhak ‘75, ’81, affiliate instructor in the Department of Psychology at AUC and consultant on Inclusive Education, shared highlights from her journey at AUC, celebrating the memory of the late professor Nicholas Ciecco, who was a pioneer in the field of psychology at AUC and managed to instill the passion of serving and helping others in students, breaking barriers by sending students in the field to interact with the community. “In 1975, I learned that change is coming. What I learned in a course became a life mission.” She later co-founded The Egyptian Foundation for Organizations and Experts Supporting Inclusive Education.
Abdel Hak also co-founded Wataneya Society which supports residential homes, including orphanages in Egypt. Another speaker, Yasmine El Hagry ’04, deputy executive director at Wataneya Society for the Development of Orphanages, was also one the active students at AUC, who volunteered in Volunteers in Action Student Club. She said: “I think there is a change, maybe it is taking a long time, and that is why people working in development and in the psychology field are the most patient.” El Hagry said, “In our case in Wataneya, we started working with the Ministry of Social Solidarity since 2013 towards mandating quality standards for alternative care nationwide. The last guidelines dated back to 1977 and we worked on the new quality standards for six years. Then in 2014, the quality standards were accredited. The change that we have been witnessing with the Ministry is great. We do capacity building for people, working in institutional homes, who are monitoring the orphanages and we get surprised by the end of the program that they start to think differently because they didn’t have the knowledge and the skills. Change is happening.”
The youngest speaker on the panel was Khaled Mostafa Salah El Din, the student representative to the Department of Psychology Student Affairs Committee and previous president of the Sociology, Anthropology and Psychology Association, AUC. He also served as the first mental health and wellbeing manager for the student organization Heya: The Feminist Initiative. Salah El Din also highlighted how throughout his years of studying, he has witnessed students becoming more interested in studying psychology. “More people are seeking help as well. We are at a point where the field is getting recognition, there is a lot of hope in the future.”