Ms. Ruveni WijesekeraIntervention by Ms. Ruveni Wijesekera
Conference on the topic « Multiculturalism: A contribution to Peace ? »
United Nations Office Geneva • Room XIX (19), Geneva, September, 2011

Ms. Ruveni WijesekeraSwiss Academy for Development (SAD) is a non-profit NGO located in Biel/Bienne. SAD is a practice- oriented research institute that promotes development opportunities for children and young people who experience rapid and often conflictual processes of change, and encourages their participation in society. SAD sees itself in the interface between science and practice. SAD develops and tests new innovative approaches and methods. It generates practice-oriented knowledge through applied studies by monitoring and evaluating projects + we have our own operational pilot projects in which we test certain approaches. SAD passes on this knowledge to organisations to generate a multiplier effect both in Switzerland and abroad.

SPORT & DEVELOPMENT

SAD has been involved in the field of sport & development since the very beginning by applying the tool of sport in different contexts with children and youth in different geographical and thematic areas to address various issues such as

  • overcoming trauma of civil war or natural disasters;
  • integrating marginalised groups;
  • fostering education and gender equity;
  • promoting peace and conflict transformation.

Sport could very well be used as a tool to promote conflict and segregation; or to promote peace and dialogue. The final result depends very much on how the intervention has been designed and implemented. The project in Sri Lanka is one such example where SAD tests the tool of sport & play for peacebuilding by measuring the effectiveness of sport & play for and defining the tool’s limitations and potentials for peacebuilding.

SPORT & PLAY FOR INTER-ETHNIC DIALOGUE IN SRI LANKA

Sri Lanka has undergone a 30 year long violent conflict / civil war between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE. The war ended in May 2009; however, unfortunately the ethnic conflict has been so far not resolved. Although the visible “violence” has been ended there has been no political solution agreed upon or a political dialogue taken place to accommodate the grievances of the minority Tamils and Muslims.

Due to the tensed and suppressive political landscape in Sri Lanka it is not feasible to initiate an inter- ethnic dialogue or a political dialogue on track one or track two. In Sri Lanka platforms for dialogue and exchange hardly exist: the school system is divided along ethnic, religious and gender lines thus leaving no space for exchange among children from diverse communities. As a result, it is not viable to initiate a direct approach towards promoting life skills such as non-violent communication, respect towards diversity, etc. In such a sensitive context as in Sri Lanka sport & play serves as an appropriate tool to promote dialogue since sport is perceived as apolitical, “unsuspicious” and it provides a “safe” entry point for peacebuilding where children and youth serve as ideal entry points to involve parents, key leaders and the extended village communities into the dialogue process.

PROJECT OBJECTIVES

This project provides children and youth with life skills and non-formal education which are not taught in school or at home:
1.   Children learn to deal with differences and conflicts in a non-violent manner through the use of sport
2.   Develop social values and skills such as fair play and respect for ethnic and religious diversity and
‘the other’s culture
3.   Emotional stability is strengthened by increasing self-esteem and resilience
4.   Contribute to the evaluation of the use of sport as a tool in peacebuilding; provide evidence and share experiences with other relevant actors.

SAD’s strategy has been to build the capacities of local youth as coaches to promote inter-ethnic dialogue among Singhalese and Tamil children and youth. The coaches have been trained in sport didactics, conflict & diversity management and monitoring & evaluation by SAD. The sport & play activities are conducted three times a week.

SAD’S CONTRIBUTION TOWARDS INTERCULTURALISM AND PEACEFUL CO-EXISTENCE

The pilot project is a contribution towards interculturalism in a multi-ethnic multicultural post-conflict context in the grass roots level where children and youth interact with each other on the following two levels:

  • Guided sport & play activities, 3 times a week in ethnic and gender mixed groups
  • Additional activities promoting intercultural understanding

Guided sport & play activities 3 times a week in ethnic and gender mixed groups

1.   Children and youth improve intercultural communication skills and interpersonal skills by cooperating with the ‘other’ to win the game
2.   The participants learn to address differences and conflicts arising within the games through discussion. The coaches act as facilitators here. After two years, some children have now taken over the facilitating role during disputes.
3.   The participants build awareness for the “weaker” or minority i.e. girls, shorter and younger children etc.
4.   The participants learn to think and behave “inclusively”: they have to come up with game- modifications / rules to include the weaker members; this thinking pattern automatically leads to a change of perspective. The children and youth are made to think from the other’s perspective (girls’
/ weaker players’).
5.   Positive experiences are shared with the ‘other’ to promote trust building

A discussion round takes place at the end of each sport & play afternoon. The discussion is guided and facilitated by the coaches. The main aim of the discussion is to facilitate the conflicts and disputes that have occurred during the sport & play session and to address various intercultural themes. Here the children learn to articulate and deal with conflicts through discussion rather than by means of (physical) violence, which had been their habitual way of dealing with conflicts in the past. An important lesson learned is that the sport & play activities in mixed teams provide a platform for encounter for children and youth from different ethnic backgrounds. However, in order to transform their inter-ethnic encounters into sustainable learnings all the relevant issues need to be addressed in-depth and dealt with during the additional discussion round.

Additional activities promoting intercultural understanding

Apart from the sport & play activities, various other activities are conducted to promote dialogue. For instance, cultural activities promoting knowledge transfer are organised by children and youth with the active support and the involvement of parents and key leaders. Religious and cultural festivals are hardly held inter-ethnically or jointly in Sri Lanka. Joint celebration of festivals within the project framework is in fact a novelty to whole of Sri Lanka!

The New Year Festival held in 2010 was ground-breaking. Although the New Year is celebrated by all ethnic groups a grand festival on the village or community level is usually held only by the Singhalese. In this festival last year, both Tamil and Singhalese communities organised and celebrated the event jointly; this is new to the whole island.
Thus, in a first step, the children/youth are offered a platform for exchange to establish trust; in a second step they are trained to build their capacities in planning, decision-making, managing and eventually implementing their own activities involving the village community.

ACHIEVEMENTS

Only some of the achievements are mentioned here.

Participants call each other by names

Although calling each other by name may seem trivial – taking the local context into consideration where the project participants have been living in the neighbouring village / next to each other all along and many of them have never even played together or spoken to each other – knowing each other by name is quite an achievement in the area.

Some participants have started visiting each other at home

Few of the children have built friendships and have started visiting their playmates of the other ethnic group at home.

Participants show interest  in the other’s  culture  and language

The language barrier is a major dividing factor in the country. It is quite common all over Sri Lanka that the Singhalese cannot speak Tamil. The Tamils, depending on the area, are able to speak a little or fluent Singhalese. As a result of getting to know many Tamil children the Singhalese children have requested the coaches to teach them Tamil. Therefore, they are offered weekly Tamil classes since February 2010.

Some children  and youth now take the lead to facilitate  disputes which occur during  games.

The monitoring and evaluation results  show that the project  participants have increased  their self-confidence.

CHALLENGES AND LESSONS LEARNED

The success of the project rests a great deal in the hands of the coaches on how they carry out the sport & play activities and especially on their facilitation, communication and leadership skills. More to the point, the coaches, who are trained to be multipliers, are the primary target group of SAD. Despite all the capacity building trainings, one of the remaining challenges at the moment is that the majority of the coaches have not yet unfolded their full potential as sport and dialogue coaches: they are expected to conduct sport & play sessions in a way in which dialogue is promoted, facilitate solution-focused resolution of disputes and simultaneously monitor the changes in interethnic relationships and behavioural changes in children. Carrying out and balancing out all these tasks is not at all easy. A further difficulty is that the necessary qualities such as dialogue, conflict facilitation and independent analytical thought are not actively encouraged in the social context in which the coaches work and live. All the more, we have to take into account the long time and the continuous guidance and support needed for a person to relearn and open oneself to become a coach who is able to behave and deliver something completely new.

Ms. Ruveni Wijesekera,
Project manager,
Swiss Academy for Development (SAD)

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