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Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, cricket leadership programme helps former child soldiers

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2010/Jayasuriya
Gopi takes a catch. With UNICEF's help, the 16-year-old former child soldier has been reintegrated into Sri Lankan society through a unique sport-for-development partnership.

By Suzanne Davey

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, 11 May 2010 – Gopi, 16, makes a dash and lunges to take the catch. “You’re out!” she yells. Elated, with her short hair bobbing from under her cap, she joins the rest of her team to celebrate the victory.

A former child soldier, Gopi is part of an innovative sport-for-development programme in conflict-torn Sri Lanka. Through the vehicle of cricket, partners including UNICEF, the International Cricket Council (ICC) and the Government of Sri Lanka are working to help rehabilate former combattants like Gopi.

Child recruitment

Life was quite different a year ago, when Gopi was abducted by the military group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and taken to one of their training camps in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.

Forced to work as a driver for the LTTE, Gopi would have to transport those killed or wounded in Sri Lanka’s long civil conflict. Twice she tried to escape, but her cropped hair – typical for a LTTE girl combatant – made her easily identifiable and she was caught.

Throughout almost three decades of civil strife, many Sri Lankan children were abducted and recruited by armed groups. Since 2002, UNICEF has registered some 7,000 of them – likely only a fraction of the real number of child soldiers throughout the country.

Gopi did finally manage to escape. Just before the close of the war in May 2009, she surrendered to the government forces.

“We were registered by UNICEF and were taken to a special rehabilitation centre in [the capital] Colombo,” she said. “I started studying again and made lots of friends.”

‘Beyond the boundaries’ of sport

Since the end of the conflict, nearly 600 children formerly associated with armed groups have benefited from UNICEF-supported education, vocational, recreational and psycho-social activities.

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2010/Jayasuriya
Cricket Peer Leaders at the Hindu College Rehabilitation Centre in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

A key aspect of rehabilitation is 'Cricket Peer Leader' training – a unique sport-for-development partnership with the ICC, UNICEF, the Government of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka Cricket and the non-governmental organization Cricket for Change UK.

“Cricket can be rightly proud of helping to develop a project which goes beyond the boundaries of our great sport,” said ICC Chief Executive Haroon Logart.

Gopi was among the first children to benefit from a week-long training on 'Street 20', an accessible version of cricket involving limited equipment. “I really enjoyed myself and especially learned about team work and leadership,” she said.

Leaders off the field

Beyond helping children learn the sport, the Cricket Peer Leader programme also helps children appreciate the values of trust, respect and fair-play off the cricket field.

UNICEF Representative in Sri Lanka Philippe Duamelle said that the programme had been successful in helping some of Sri Lanka’s most marginalized children. “We are using the power of sport through this great partnership to reach out to vulnerable children and help them realize their full potential,” he said.

With the support of Sri Lanka Cricket and UNICEF, the Cricket Peer Leaders will return to their homes and run their own cricket programmes, reaching out to other disadvantaged children. “Now, I want to teach others what I have learned,” said Gopi.



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