#08 sport
Ruveni Wijesekera

“Before I Always Used to Fight” – Sports as a Tool for Conflict Transformation and Prevention in Sri Lanka

They live separately, they learn separately and they speak different languages: a decade of civil war has deeply divided the people of a region in Southeastern Sri Lanka. The Tamil and Singhalese peoples continue to avoid one another. A sports and games project has now succeeded in bringing some villages closer together. Project manager Ruveni Wijesekera from the Swiss Academy for Development (SAD) reports.

Using sports and games to solve a conflict? Four years ago, I was very sceptical too. I grew up in Sri Lanka, I am Singhalese myself. I know how deep the wounds are on both sides, how deeply rooted the prejudices are in people, and I can still hardly believe it. I run the Swiss NGO SAD's project "Sports and Play for Interethnic Dialogue among Children and Youth in Sri Lanka". Today I can say we have achieved far more than I had ever imagined.

The most apolitical way to be political

Although the brutal civil war and open violence were officially declared over in 2009, the socio-political situation for minorities and everyday life for public critics of the regime continue to worsen. Together with a local NGO, Future Peace, the SAD decided to promote dialogue through sports and games by bringing Tamil and Singhalese children and youths together using sport as a tool. Sports projects enjoy a huge advantage in conflict regions, since sport is considered apolitical; it is not seen as dangerous. The results of the project are highly political though.

Our project team chose a region only marginally affected by the conflict in order to test our approach. We selected four pairs of villages of one Singhalese and one Tamil village each, and began training local youths from both ethnic groups as coaches.

A coach for a new way of thinking

Our coaches are not athletic coaches. They are coaches for a new system of thinking. The youths learned to question cultural/ethnic stereotypes and prejudices and to think analytically. This is not widespread in Sri Lanka -- in the schools at least, children simply learn to reproduce. The project also promoted a constructive approach to diversity: religious, ethnic, gender and linguistic diversity. And the children learned to value that. But schools in Sri Lanka do the opposite: the institutions are separated by ethnicity, according to gender, language and sometimes religion.

The coaches offer after-school sports and games three times a week. These might start with a game of football or volleyball, for example. When inequalities arise, like the ball is never passed to the smaller children or the girls, the coach interrupts the game. This generally happens just a few minutes in. The children then put their heads together and think about how to change the rules of the game to make it fairer. They can decide, for example, that a goal scored by a girl counts double. After around half an hour, the game has often changed completely. This is how the children learn to be creative together in the group and think inclusively. The effect of this approach is impressive: by now the children often assume the role of the coach themselves and intervene. Here young people with leadership potential really come to the fore.

"Lots of disputes occur in Children's Club"

The project views conflicts as opportunities. In the beginning, physical fights actually broke out at times in the very heterogeneous project groups. But this also brought important issues to the table, such as how to deal with differences/conflicts, intercultural prejudices or different values. Every sport and play session ended in a discussion round where participants talked about these topics. The children also discussed and planned what kinds of interethnic activities they could undertake jointly with their village communities that would involve their parents as well. There would have been no learning process without the conflicts. At the end of the programme one of the children reported during the assessment: "Before starting this programme I always used to fight. But afterwards I solved problems through discussions."

Most conflicts aren't ethnic

Participants of the project 'Sports and Play for Interethnic Dialogue among Children and Youth in Sri Lanka'

From my own experience as a trained mediator, I know that most conflicts are not really intercultural; they are not ethnicised or culturalised until after the fact. Although the conflict in Sri Lanka is clearly very ethnic on a structural and socio-political level, this other factor was very visible in the project. Generally the problem was simply that a child lost the ball. But then that child would begin to insult the other ethnic group. The fact that this problem was immediately addressed at such moments removed the capacity for the conflict to escalate.

On example illustrates very well how playing together shed light on the ethnicized problems. There was one Tamil village in which the children were often dirty, which the Singhalese children found disgusting. They attributed it to the fact that the Tamils simply did not wash themselves. In reality though, the parents in that village had no time for their children. They were poorer and both parents often worked seven days a week from 8 am to 8 pm. The majority of the Singhalese parents in this region are often much better off. So the conflict at the children's level is not ethnic – though the reason for the poverty suffered by the Tamils is ethnic on a structural political level. But in the project it was possible to deal with the respective differences in other ways at the children's level without involving the ethnic level.

It took a few months for the Tamil children to start paying greater attention to cleanliness. For their part the Singhalese children now understood the cause and had developed an understanding for the children. This empathy went so far that the Singhalese children began collecting money in their village buy notebooks for their Tamil counterparts. At the evaluation one child said: "Before, I thought that Tamils were a hateful and an unwanted community. But after joining the sports club I learned that they are equally good natured. I learned that Tamil children are children with equally good qualities and manners and that they are very good children."

The first village festival together

The project offers two approaches for breaking down the prejudices and mistrust of the parents – many of whom initially did not want to send their children to the other village. The coaches do a great deal to build trust, and youths also independently plan activities, like leasure trips, in which parents and communities also participate.

One of the most exciting successes of this program, aimed at children and youths, was therefore that it also influenced the parents and the larger community. The change was not as great as with the children who really developed close intercultural friendships. Children who never played together before now visit each other regularly. But among the adults too, old acquaintanceships that the war had destroyed were revived. These aren't close friendships; adults from the two ethnic groups would still hardly visit each other at home on their own initiative, but they do invite each other to weddings and funerals.

In one project the communities of the two villages even celebrated New Year's together. Normally New Year's, like many cultural and religious holidays, is celebrated separately on a village or community level. I think it was the first time in Sri Lankan history that a village festival was held that both ethnic groups organized together, worked on together and celebrated in both languages.

Unexpected success

Participants of the project 'Sports and Play for Interethnic Dialogue among Children and Youth in Sri Lanka'

The evaluation results confirm what we had already observed. Our assessments indicate that we achieved all our goals with the children who participated regularly:

  • We developed interethnic relationships between children, which now developed into stable friendships.
  • The children learnt to deal with conflict and differences without violence.
  • We found a very participatory approach and it worked: the Future Peace Team designed their project themselves.
  • We worked with an apolitical means, but the results were highly political.

Future Peace was particularly important to the project. They were a very open partner and receptive to new ideas. We could not have implemented our flexible approach otherwise. It was an experiment and everyone had to be willing to come on board and give it a chance.

The one factor we had not considered was afternoon tuition classes. Education is very valued in Sri Lanka, and many children go for tuition in the afternoons. This meant we had fewer regular participants than we had hoped. Only around 60 children attended regularly, though around 150 to 300 children participated overall.

The larger vision

In order for such a project to have an effect on the entire conflict though, it needs political support and integration into local structures. The activities in the eight villages were an experiment. The project is sure to be continued and spread on a village level, but it will not change the country as a whole.

Now that the pilot phase has been successfully concluded, Future Peace would like to introduce the project at a higher level and organize it in schools. We are still waiting for approval from the Ministry of Education, which is not so easy since the government has many reservations regarding NGOs. But everyone at the grassroots level is enthusiastic. A number of schools have already told us they want to have the program at their school.

In contrast to the pilot project, the school groups would be divided by gender, religion and ethnicity. But our approach can also be implemented inside a one ethnic group: you do not need the 'other' to learn how to deal with conflicts or differences non-violently and to question your own prejudices. Later a number of schools will do activities together now and again. The schools have already agreed quite enthusiastically to this level of cooperation.

Of course sports can trigger conflict.

Participants of the project 'Sports and Play for Interethnic Dialogue among Children and Youth in Sri Lanka'

The "Sports and Play for Interethnic Dialogue among Children and Youth in Sri Lanka" is just one example of how sport can be used to promote development. The success of a sport project is greatly dependant on the project design. Sport can clearly also trigger conflict; it all depends on how the intervention is designed.

SAD plays an important role here. SAD has used sport in youth projects for many years in other countries as well: in Nepal for education, and in Iran after the earthquake and Lebanon for psychosocial wellbeing of traumatized children.

First aid for traumatized children

Sport is also an effective approach in emergency aid. It may come as a surprise, since what people in need require primarily are food, water, shelter, etc. But many of them are also traumatized. Sport is like first aid for trauma – when the primary needs have been met. It gives traumatized children the opportunity to create their own structures, to laugh, make friends. And it also brings relief to the parents who are also suffering. Studies have shown that sport has a great impact on traumatized children. The SAD is therefore planning a sport project in South Sudan.

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