Together with our partner organisation, the Community Psychosocial Support Organisation (CPSO), we use a sport-based approach to help South Sudanese refugee women overcome war-related trauma.
Since the conflict in South Sudan resumed in 2013, over four million people have been internally displaced or have fled to nearby countries. Many migrated to Uganda, including participants of the Women on the Move project.Together with our local partner organisation CPSO, we had implemented the project in South Sudan from 2012 until 2016, successfully supporting women in overcoming war-related trauma through a sport-based approach.
When violence in Kajo-Keji, South Sudan, escalated again in 2016, CPSO and many project participants had to leave, but the project went on. In the Palorinya refugee camp in northern Uganda, former participants took up sport activities again. A new project phase started from the bottom up to help migrated women and children to come to terms with violence and trauma, while improving life skills, livelihoods and social cohesion in the refugee camps.
Fostering life skills and social cohesion through football
Displaced women re-starting football sessions themselves cannot be taken for granted, as starting activities in the first place in South Sudan was not easy. A profound needs and context assessment was particularly important, “since this project was something completely new”, says Kenneth Godi, director and founder of CPSO.
“Due to cultural norms, women did not play football. Some men would not accept their wives or daughters participating in the activities. So, we did focus group discussions also with men, and we had to explain the benefits of the sport activities for women’s psychosocial and physical health. Only after these discussions, women were able to register and participate safely in the activities.”
It is therefore not surprising that many female coaches and project participants see being able to practice sports as empowering:
“Women were not supposed to play football, it was a new thing and so it was very exciting to do it, it was kind of an empowerment for us. […] Last week, we played with the authorities; they lost against us. And on refugee day, we beat them as well.” (Josephine, 29 and Nancy, 32)
Lilian Sharon Jokudo, programme coordinator since the very beginning, agrees that sports empower women and girls, adding that this does not stop on the pitch: “When women can play football, men can also support women in cooking or fetching water.” Breaking gender stereotypes is one of many topics in awareness raising sessions for the wider community to include displaced women, children, youth and men.
SA4D’s sport and play activities are always followed by a three-step discussion. First, participants reflect on the activity. Second, they connect the activity to real-life situations. Finally, they discuss how the lessons learnt can be applied in real life. The sport activities and games are, therefore, specifically designed to foster life skills, from self-esteem and perceived self-efficacy to effective communication and problem solving. As Lilian says: “Women and girls who were very shy at the beginning got more open minded; they learnt to demonstrate leadership skills and speak up on behalf of themselves. They, for example, learnt to better resist and protect themselves from early marriage and pregnancies. Before, because of culture, women did not report cases of sexual violence; here, we observe big differences.”
The host community is also well integrated in project activities. The sports activities have not only been effective in fostering social cohesion between female refugees and members of the host communities, but also between women and girls coming from different places in South Sudan. As Kenneth explains: “In South Sudan, almost all participants were from the same tribe. Here, we include more than ten tribes with different cultures; sometimes tensions exist. By coming and playing together, participants learnt to respect each other’s culture. The sport activities promoted unity. Today, we see Ugandan and South Sudanese women and girls from different tribes playing football together peacefully. They play together as if they were sisters.”
Internal project evaluations confirmed the general increase in availability and quality of social networks through the football activities, contributing to the overall project goal of enhanced psychosocial wellbeing and improved coping skills.
Local knowledge and a holistic approach
The advantage of CPSO is that it is run by the refugees themselves. Project managers and the mostly female coaches know what it means to leave everything behind – many of them, unfortunately, not fleeing for the first time. Psychological skills and trauma-sensitivity in sport sessions is important, as is coordination with camp sites and all relevant stakeholders.
A holistic approach has also been essential. Displaced girls can suffer from trauma, gender-based violence, poverty and more, “so it is necessary to work at several things at once”, says Kenneth. While sport and life skill games are at the heart of the project, these are complemented by advanced counselling for patients with more severe illnesses and sessions that raise awareness about different issues, from mental wellbeing and sexual and reproductive health to violence prevention and conflict transformation for the wider community (including men).
The project also addresses poverty through savings groups, allowing women and girls to build up small income generating activities: “It is obvious that living in poverty with no access to finance, income or employment-related training has negative consequences on your health, especially for young people”, says Kenneth.
The socio-political environment provides some hope for the younger generation. Despite the ongoing flight of refugees to Uganda, others have started to return to safer regions of their home country. However, living conditions in South Sudan remain extremely difficult, comparable to or even worse than in refugee camps. Schools and health institutions have been destroyed; trauma, unemployment and poverty are widespread. Against this background, SA4D and CPSO have just started a new project phase, specifically supporting young (predominantly female) refugees’ health, education, and employment skills through sport – contributing to a more prosperous future in the border region of Uganda and South Sudan.
This article has been published on sportanddev as part of their partnership with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. For more information on using sport in work with refugees please visit the UNHCR website.