With “Moving Beyond Trauma” SAD is supporting women traumatised by war and violence in Myanmar. In occasion of the 16 days against gender violence project manager Kathleen Woodhouse-Ledermann explains SAD’s sport and play based approach to trauma.

“Moving Beyond Trauma” (MBT) is located in the south-eastern Kayin State on the border to Thailand. What is the current situation in the region?

Kayin State has been the battleground of one of Myanmar’s longest running civil wars. During the conflict, women in particular suffered from systematic war crimes such as torture, rape and forced labour. Since the ceasefire in 2012, there have been no excesses of violence, but the wounds of war are far from healed.


How do the consequences of war manifest themselves in daily life?

Many of the participants suffer from psychosomatic pains that make it difficult to manage everyday tasks like cleaning the house. A lot of them also suffer from dizziness and nausea.

Because of the traumatic past, they cannot easily detach from troubling thoughts. They feel distant and alone and have a hard time recognizing and communicating their emotions. Frequently they don’t know why they are feeling this way, they don’t know how to locate their sadness.


MBT targets women in particular. What is specific about their situation?

The women live with a high level of stress and anxiety. There continues to be a high incidence of domestic violence. Often both parents have to work, and many husbands are absent in search for jobs. For women this leads to a double or triple burden between wage work, household chores and child care. They are overstrained with things to do they never can accomplish. As a consequence, they cannot disconnect and are under a constant pressure.


How do SAD and its local partner organisation KWEG address these challenges?

We are following a trauma-informed approach. This means, that we do not intend to treat the trauma directly, but we aim at building up capacities to cope with trauma.


What exactly does that mean?

The first stage in this process is to raise awareness of trauma. To make people understand what it is and how it can manifest itself. Another important prerequisite is a safe space where people can experience a situation of physical and emotional safety. Key to this is a trustful relationship between coach and participants but also among the group. This is achieved through clear information, realistic expectations, consistent scheduling of appointments or by ensuring confidentiality.


So, you start by building up the social network that has been lost?

Exactly. Social support is one of the strongest defences against problems following traumatic events. Trauma needs to be addressed in an environment that establishes non-traumatising relationships. This is the base for facilitating the women’s abilities to take charge of their lives, and most importantly, to have a conscious choice and control over their actions. To achieve this, we assist the women in identifying their strengths and building up their coping skills.


What’s sport and play’s role in this?

Sport and play are an effective way of building critical skills for coping. One of the most apparent aspects is movement. Just being outside and exercising has an enormous impact on your physical and mental health. But it also helps to address behavioural symptoms that come from trauma, like for instance problem solving issues.

On the other hand, sport and play has a social component, it’s a very low-threshold measure to foster exchange and promote communication skills. It can be very inclusive if rules are set in the right way. Not many approaches can be adapted to include women ranging from 12 to 65 years, as it is the case with MBT.


How do you develop the sport and play activities?

Sports and games are present in any culture in kind of a unique way. This means that they are rooted in the specific social setting. We take advantage of this by relying as much as possible on local games and sports. Another strength of the sport and play based approach is its flexibility. It is easy to amend a game or find a workaround. You always find a way with a ball to do something that makes sense to people.


Can you make an example of a game?

If you take the issue of problem solving, a game we use is the following: There are two teams. One is told to get the orange peel, the other one the juice of the orange. Normally, the participants only try to get the orange and don’t clarify what their specific needs are (the peel, the juice). The game is used as a learning by doing exercise, so to say, based on which reflection is encouraged. What did go wrong in the game? How could we have done better? How can we apply these insights in everyday situations?

In sum, it is important to understand that sport and play as an intervention does not mean to throw in a ball and whistle. Every activity we use is targeted. Sport and play help us to build a scenario where specific skills are trained.