USAID-Facilitated Inter-Ethnic Interactions Enable Women to Share on International Women’s Day in Sri-Lanka

By Kathya de Silva Senarath

In an age of endless competition and cutthroat mentality to get ahead, a Peace and Reconciliation Camp facilitated by USAID with the Rotary Club of Colombo East, rode against currents to instill values of equality, tolerance, respect and teamwork among children through the skills development of preschool teachers across the country.

More than 100 preschool teachers from Northern, Eastern, Central and Uva provinces, especially in conflict-affected hot-spots, came together to discuss, review, and agree on better approaches to make positive attitudinal changes among children to create a peaceful society. The camp in Thanamalwila in Moneragala from March 7 to 9 was the third of its kind, held under the theme ‘I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights,’ coinciding with International Women’s Day.

The all-women participants aged 20 to 45 comprising 52 Sinhalese, 44 Tamils and nine Muslims made the camp an enabling space for inter-ethnic interaction and reconciliation. It was a collaborative platform to discuss the challenges women face on a daily basis, be it the public or private lives, and draw strength from each other in overcoming them. The camp opened up lively discussions on common problems women face, regardless of ethnicity. The discrimination they face as women brought them together and bonded them in their common grievances that all too often seem invisible in society. They found a common ground to discuss even the personal experiences they undergo as women and found solace in the newfound friendships across borders.

Since all of the preschool teachers have more than 2,300 children under their care, training the teachers on social cohesion and reconciliation was seen as the best way to instill good values among the younger generation to achieve a reconciled and peaceful Sri Lanka.

“Before I came here, I did not realize how important themes such as peace, social cohesion and reconciliation were at the preschool stage. Parents’ requirements are different as they want us to prepare their children for school. But at this camp, I learned that skills development on peace is a preparation for life,” said John Merena, a Tamil preschool teacher from Kilinochchi.

“Even though preschoolers in our classrooms do not see nor feel ethnic divides, they would, later on in life if we neglect to impart the right values. This camp helped me develop the skills to impart those values by adopting innovative methods for my children so that they grow up to be peaceful citizens and coexist with others different to them,” said M. D. Anupama, another preschool teacher from Hambantota.

USAID and the Rotary Club of Colombo East brought expert trainers in the field to talk to the participants about social cohesion and reconciliation, methods to inculcate good values among preschool children, how children can be approached and made to practice coexistence, and how to reinforce respect for others’ cultural and religious beliefs. Team building and leadership sessions were also conducted for them by volunteers from the Sri Lanka Scouts Association, which helped participants build strong links with peers from other regions.

“When I came to this camp, I did not know anyone from the Northern Province. Thanks to USAID and Rotary Colombo East, I now have friends in Jaffna and Kilinochchi. They’ve even invited me to stay in their places if ever I visit the region. This is how reconciliation should work; to disregard our differences and come to the same page on how we should build our future. I am very happy about the strong bonds I created with those of other ethnicities,” said Ajantha Kumari, a preschool teacher from Buttala.

By all accounts, the Peace and Reconciliation Camp was a mark of success on the road toward social cohesion and reconciliation as the results were evident in the warmth of new bonds. The awakened spirit of these women to foster a better tomorrow for their children was motivation enough for them to let the flag of peace fly high.

Region: Sri Lanka
Area of expertise: Women / Gender