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In a country where people’s emotions often hang by the fickle thread of its national cricket team’s performance or that of an exhilarating afternoon of football, there remains no doubt about the power of its sporting culture. Various sectors have tried to utilise this trait; and amongst them the development field, in particular, has seen progress.
UNICEF along with its partners in recent years, have used various sporting strategies to help children residing in the rural areas and the city-streets, especially girls, break free from traditional norms that have hindered their development. “Our main aim was to address issues such as child abuse, child marriage and other traditional problems through sport,” says Imtiaz Ahmed, Project Official, Child Protection section.
So how does being involved in an outdoor sport help a child? Ahmed explains: “It gives a sense of status to the children in villages. It helps them develop a sense of social responsibility and also develops their thinking process. For instance, the decisions that they take on the field can help them in their real life.”
The process of course was a long and tedious one. The seeds of which were sown back in 2009 after the launch of International Inspiration, a UK-based project that aims to inspire young people around the world through the power of sport.
A joint-venture with the BKSP (national sports education institute) covered the first step and helped in the assembling of coaches for different sports, who later returned to their respective regions to train children.
The next step was a bit more difficult. They had to convince parents to allow their daughters to participate in these outdoor games. “One of the major problems we faced here was persuading parents to send their girls outside. In Cox’s Bazar, for instance, we had to fight hard against the age-old barriers,” says Ahmed. After spending several sessions with the parents, many of them eventually lifted the bars off their girls.
The first achievement arrived in November 2010, when UNICEF Bangladesh along with other NGOs formed the Cox’s Bazaar female sports team, as a part of their Empowerment of Adolescents project.
The players were selected from ‘Kishori Clubs’, which are UNICEF-supported adolescent clubs and are run by BRAC. These clubs were created to give the youngsters a platform to discuss various issues and help them act as change-makers. The 18-member team was selected from an astonishing 1500 applicants.
The players participated in a 12-day training session, followed by six days of training at the district stadium and the result was phenomenal. It provided many with a new sense of belief.
“Sport has given me a new identity in my community,” says wicketkeeper Sumaiya Nasrin, daughter of a rickshaw puller in Cox’s Bazar and the youngest member of the team, “People respect me. I feel like I have a voice now”.
Having formed a number of teams from different regions, the project was taken to the next level when a tournament was hosted in 2011. The growing change in the people’s outlook was evident during the competition. “There were many elder people, including hujurs (Islamic priests) who blessed the girls in our teams and wished them good luck,” says Ahmed.
The enthusiasm shown by the children even impressed a number of professional cricketers. Former national captain Habibul Bashar, who was involved in a cricket-related project, was one of them. “It’s a great step. Honestly speaking, girls get lesser opportunities and these projects are giving them a new pathway. It’s good for the country’s cricket development as well. Who knows, maybe one of these girls will represent Bangladesh in the future,” exclaims Bashar.
The project which currently runs in 10 districts is gradually expanding and has hosted competitions in games apart from cricket as well. “Apart from volleyball and football we also try to include traditional games from different regions in the competitions so that they are kept alive,” says Ahmed.
One of the other important aspects of the project includes the teaching of swimming. According to statistics, approximately 18,000 children die from drowning accidents in Bangladesh every year.
Keeping this in mind, thousands of children in the 10 districts are given 15-day training programmes in survival swimming. “It’s like a school and if a student wants to graduate then he or she needs to learn the techniques of survival swimming. On the final day, a participant has to swim 25 metres and complete various other survival tasks such as CPR etc.” says Ahmed.
Apart from teaching children the norms to survive in water, Ahmed says that it also has a positive social impact. “Last year we trained 57,000 children. The village community trained 3000 more on their own. So it builds a social responsibility,” he explains.
Four years in the business and the project has already seen positive results. UNICEF plans to further reach a larger audience in the near future. They say that sport is often responsible for uniting the country. UNICEF’s project has taken it up a notch and has shown us that it can also provide you with a new sense of belief and self-confidence.