The Sunday TimesPlus

28th July 1996



Building Bridges

Sri Lanka adopts education for conflict resolution

By Hiranthi Fernando

In the world today, vast numbers of children are enmeshed in the throes of war and armed conflicts that are tearing many nations apart. As a result, they are exposed to the horrors of violence and brutality and ever greater dangers. During the last decade, it is estimated that approximately two million children have been killed and four to five million disabled due to warfare. A further 12 million have been rendered homeless and over a million orphaned or separated from their families. More than ten million children who have experienced the violence of war have been psychologically traumatized. Recent years have also seen an increasing use of young children as fighters.

In this war situation, UNICEF, founded to provide emergency aid to children in the aftermath of World War 2, is again addressing the needs of children suffering in war. In this, their 50th year of service to the children of the world, UNICEF has set out an Anti War Agenda to assist installing the momentum of violence. The Anti War Agenda calls for such actions as an end to recruitment of children under 18 into fighting forces, ban on anti personnel land mines and strengthening of procedures to monitor war crimes. The Agenda also urges support for long term development, reconciliation, rehabilitation and education for peace.

UNICEF believes that, "the world must no longer wait for the outbreak of hostilities before it pays heed. Much more deliberate effort should be made to address the underlying causes of violence and to invest more resources in mediation and conflict resolution". Thus, Peace Education or Education for Conflict Resolution (ECR) is being promoted in many conflict stricken countries, for instance, Lebanon, Mozambique, Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka. Countries with a multi racial population such as Canada and the U.K. are now introducing ECR as a life skill for school children.

Sri Lanka has experienced much violence in the last decade due to the continuing armed conflict in the North and East and the uprising that occured in the South. Children in strife torn areas have grown up in the midst of violence and conflict, seeing no other way of life. Although most people wish to live in harmony, a tendency towards violence and the resultant "gun culture" has emerged in the nation. The ECR programme was initiated in Sri Lanka in response to the need to reinstill in the young, attitudes of compassion, tolerance and understanding towards each other. As part of its programme to promote peace education in areas of strife, UNICEF together with the National Institute of Education is striving to introduce ECR in 10,062 schools in Sri Lanka. The programme which commenced in 1992 has met with much encouragement from teachers. In fact, it has earned recognition in the annual UNICEF report.

"The overall aim of the programme is to introduce ECR into the school curriculum as a life skill, so that children will be better equipped to deal with the conflicts and problems of everyday life positively through peaceful means.", said Ms. Anoja Wijesekera, the UNICEF officer in charge of the programme. "Through the programme, concepts such as positive self image, inner peace, active listening, cooperation, assertiveness, critical thinking, decision making, non violent conflict resolution and community building are being introduced into normal subject learning.".

"Conflict is an inescapable part of our lives", said Anoja. "It is inherent in the process of change within individuals and society. Conflicts occur between individuals, families, communities, races and nations. One must learn to deal with it effectively. It is important to distinguish between conflict and violence."

Explaining further, Anoja said that violence is a negative manifestation of conflict, and results in a no win situation. The conflicting parties approach the problem aggressively, with the objective of suppressing the opposition, believing it to be the solution. Such a victory is only temporary and leads to ill will, resentment, revenge and further violence.

Education for conflict resolution enables people to analyse conflicts and look at the underlying causes. They are then able to deal with conflicts positively using peaceful, non violent methods. A conflict approached in a positive manner leads to a situation where both parties are satisfied. The resolution has addressed the underlying causes and not merely the visible manifestations.

"Indoctrinating children in to violence is the worst form of abuse",, said Anoja. "The children are deprived of family, security, love and education". The ECR programme has been formulated to uphold the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the conflicts of the north as well as south of Sri Lanka, young people have been indoctrinated into violence with just a few lectures.

The ECR programme in Sri Lanka has an extensive target of 195,000 teachers and 4 1/2 million school children. Initially, a core group of resource persons were trained at the National Institute of Education on the forms of Conflict Resolution employed in other countries. These methods were adapted and new methods subsequently developed to suit the Sri Lankan situation.

According to Anoja, the teacher training is progressing well. Over 10,000 teachers have been trained so far. Nilwala College of Education at Matara plays a specialised role in ECR. Here, student teachers are trained to integrate ideas and methods of conflict resolution into all subject areas. Nilwala College has an internship programme with local schools. The trainee teachers are sent on an year's internship to other schools. School principals are also trained to integrate ECR into primary school curriculum. Revision of curriculum and the preparation of teaching material is being carried out by the N.I.E. In the period 96/97, it is planned to develop the other ten Colleges of Education as focal points for ECR in the respective districts. ECR is also being introduced into the Distance Education programme.

In the Western, Central and Southern Provinces as well as in selected areas of the North and East, ECR has already been introduced into the primary school curriculum. It is taught not as a separate subject but integrated into the normal subjects.

Although conflict resolution may seem like a mouthful for little children, it is introduced in a simple manner through classroom activities. For example, in a Social Studies class for small children, the teacher holds a stick in his hands and asks the children what would happen if he bends the stick. The children chorus "it will break". He bends the stick and sure enough it breaks. He then takes another four sticks, holds them all together and repeats the question. The children realise that they will not break. The teacher demonstrates that the sticks when held together cannot be broken. By this simple exercise the teacher impresses on the little ones that unity is strength.

ECR is promoted through many activities in the classroom. Children are encouraged to express emotions through stories, songs and poetry. Role playing is an important part of the ECR approach. Children enact a conflict which confronts them in their lives. They are then taught to analyse the conflict and find out the reasons for it.

Through the ECR programme activities are organised to bring school children of different racial and religious groups together, to promote understanding and respect for each other's cultures and religions. In Trincomalee recently, efforts were made to get children to build bridges through religious leaders. A peace camp organised at Embilipitiya through the Girl Guides for children of all communities proved to be very successful. It was found that ethnicity does not figure in children's minds. A poster competition entitled "A world without war" was also organised.

The methodology for this programme has been adapted to suit the Sri Lankan situation and culture. Teachers who have been trained in ECR favour this approach. They feel it is akin to our own cultural values. It is a rekindling of old values through new approaches. For instance, ECR has incorporated meditation, familiar to both Buddhism and Hinduism, as a tool to generate a sense of inner peace. The methods of conflict resolution advocate assertiveness as the middle path between two extremes of submissiveness and aggressiveness. This too is stressed in Buddhism. Cooperative principles promoted by ECR have also been traditional in Sri Lankan village life. Teachers are also in favour of the participatory learning methods used in ECR as they enhance the learning environment.

The training of teachers, developing books and learning material is funded by UNICEF with the help of donors. The programme for 1994 was funded by the collections made by school children in the U.K. at their annual non uniform day.

A mass media campaign has targeted parents to make them aware of their importance as role models to the children. It also aims to create awareness among the public that peaceful attitudes need to be promoted in the home and community as well.

During the period from1992 to 1996, the ECR programme focussed primarily on process and capacity building. The next programming cycle will focus on its impact on children and sustainability. The Ministry of Education together with UNICEF, aims to extend the programme in stages to all the provinces.

Ms. Anoja Wijesekera stressed that Education for Conflict Resolution is an entirely non political programme. Its ultimate objective is to help the children to develop into peaceful citizens. It is not an immediate solution to armed conflict but an approach to learning that could lead to a more peaceful society.

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