Despite 10 years of relative peace in Sri Lanka, deep inter-religious and inter-ethnic tensions remain.
Just last year a series of coordinated bomb blasts on churches and hotels saw over 250 people lose their lives. The aftermath of the attacks also saw an increase in hate speech on social media, further dividing communities.
In the Eastern provinces of the country an estimated 94 per cent of schools are ethnically segregated, with classes run only in the Sinhalese (64 per cent) or Tamil language (30 per cent), reinforcing social divisions in a new generation.
This is something UNICEF is hoping to help change, by bringing children from different communities together through a common love of cricket.
Recently, UNICEF Sri Lanka began a sport for development pilot program in the area, working with schools to create and support their cricket programs, and running out-of-school competitions for junior secondary students from multi-ethnic and religious backgrounds.
The out-of-school competitions are an incredible opportunity to foster understanding and cohesion, with students forming teams and playing together, irrespective of ethnicity, religion or ability.
“This is where the Sri Lanka program has huge potential,” explains Felicity Weaver, UNICEF Australia Director of International Programs.
"Sport can be a way of bringing together diverse or separate groups on common ground in a place they value equally – such as a cricket pitch."
"It’s a way groups can learn teamwork and cooperation and build understanding of one another,” says Felicity.
Sport is often thought of as providing healthy mental and physical development. But it can achieve so much more than this for children and communities. It unites us and can break down barriers, promote participation, alter attitudes and include the excluded – on and off the field.
Felicity says that’s what she finds most exciting about the Sri Lanka program. It has real potential to create a more cohesive next generation, helping rebuild a community that suffered through decades of war and unrest.
“If we can address those divides, and we address them early on as children are developing their own mindsets and attitudes then we see long-term change happening for a country like Sri Lanka,” says Felicity.
At the competitions, participants discussed the challenges they face around tolerance and peacebuilding and presented this back to their parents and community leaders who came to watch the games.
“Having these young people projecting their own voices and saying: 'we want peace, we want tolerance, we want something different than what we’ve experienced', and being able to be those voices in their community, I think that’s what’s really powerful,” Felicity says.
"Having young people saying: 'we want peace, we want tolerance, we want something different than what we’ve experienced', that’s what’s really powerful."
"For taboo subjects, like peacebuilding, sometimes it’s really difficult to start to address that and make that change. I see sport as really having the power to enter that space in a way that many things cannot.”
The cricket program is an incredible opportunity to enhance students’ sports skills, provide girls with the opportunity to play sport, a space where they are typically excluded, while also building cohesion and peace in an area that has been plagued by conflict and unrest.
It will also involve building the capacity of teachers and school sports coaches to ensure the longevity of the program.
Help us expand this incredible program
After the success of a pilot program in Sri Lanka, UNICEF are expanding the program around the country. Our aim is to reach children where they are – through schools and Children’s Clubs to reap the benefits of sport in all aspects of their lives.
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