Youth Leadership for a Peaceful Future in Sri Lanka

BY: Esther Marthaler - 18. June 2024

Sri Lanka is a stunningly beautiful country known for its beaches and ayurvedic traditions. It’s very popular among tourists. But the idyllic-looking setting can be misleading: Until 2009, Sri Lanka was haunted by a 30-year conflict. The wounds of this violent conflict are not yet healed. Reconciliation efforts are still scarce and are not yet bearing the necessary fruits.

The main conflict was between the country’s two major ethnic groups: the Tamils in the north and the Sinhalese in the south, with neither sharing a common script or language. Sri Lanka is also a multireligious country, and the barriers of religion are by no means always congruent to the ethnic lines. There is also sizeable Muslim community that aligns with neither of the other groups.

Over the past 10 years, violent clashes have flared up between the various religious groups. In 2018, several people were killed when Muslim and Sinhalese Buddhist groups attacked each other in the cultural center of Kandy. The infamous Easter Sunday terrorist bombings in 2019, where at least 269 people were killed, further instilled fear and insecurity within a population that was already struggling with a violent past.

Growing up in the shadow of war

Most youth in Sri Lanka have not experienced the war themselves, yet their lives, families and future hopes are still heavily influenced by this period in the post-colonial history of the country. To tackle social cohesion, in 2015 Helvetas started to work with multiethnic and multireligious youth groups.

Initiating interactions between these groups was not easy. When Helvetas introduced crossover visits between homes of youth groups of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, one mother of a teenager who was going to visit a family from a different group in another region of the country said: “I was so scared to let my child go to this place where these people live. I was really not sure if it was safe there and if they would be treated right.”

As Helvetas worked with these groups to slowly build relationships and improve social cohesion, the country again found itself in crisis. In 2022, the economy took a huge hit as tourism and remittances from migrant workers dropped dramatically due to COVID-19. Subsequently, the country defaulted on its foreign debts, resulting in 85% food inflation and acute shortages of essential medicines and fuel.

Protests that were initially peaceful spiralled into a chaotic political crisis. For a few weeks, life came to a literal standstill. The newly appointed president made a deal with the International Monetary Fund and other lenders, but sustainable political alternatives to ethnic and religion-based votes and political parties are not yet on the horizon. Politics in Sri Lanka is still mostly happening along ethnic and religious lines, which is a hindrance to finding long-term solutions for the economic crisis.

It is complicated to be a youth in this context. On the one side, youth are particularly well suited to develop new ideas for the future of the country. But on the other side, this group often has little hope of finding their place in a society where the economic outlook is grim and deep mistrust persists between ethnic and religious communities.

Guiding youth reconciliation efforts

A lack of social cohesion and trust is fertile ground for violent extremism. Young men and women bursting with energy and drive to build their lives are particularly vulnerable to being misled. At the same time, these young people are affected by prevalent drug issues, violence against women and girls, misinformation and cyberbullying.

Relying on its long-term experience in the country and extensive work with youth, in 2021 Helvetas started the EMPOWER project to address these multi-fold issues with the support of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF). The project’s goal is to enhance youth’s resilience and capacity to contribute to the Prevention of Violent Extremism (PVE) through the inclusion of young people aged 15 to 29 from diverse ethnic, religious, cultural and social backgrounds.

Young men and women in Sri Lanka are faced with problems that are typical for their age. But in an environment wracked by protracted violence and religious or ethnic conflict, the scale and intensity of disputes goes far beyond what one would normally expect. Adding to this is the fact that parents, teachers and community officials that would normally intervene may be biased or traumatized – and find themselves unwilling or unable to assist in resolving conflicts in a constructive manner. This is where the EMPOWER project intervenes by training youth to abstain from violence and bridge the divides between the different groups to jointly construct a shared future.

To achieve this, youth-led organizations and community-based organizations that support youth activities were invited to submit proposals for funding. By the end of 2023, 30 organizations had been trained on the basics of how to manage a project and account for the expenses incurred, and then will receive guidance as they start tackling the underlying issues in their respective communities. This is done in creative and interactive workshops where participants connect and network with other youth and build positive relationships.

The workshops include a variety of methods to start connecting to each other, for example by puppetry activities or theatre for emotional intelligence, emotional resilience and self-compassion. This allows youth to break away from their daily stresses and spend a fun-filled day with their peers engaging in creative song, dance and free expression. The issues voiced by young men and women can be raised and strategies to tackle them can be discussed, thereby contributing to stress management and emotional resilience. These events also emphasize open attitudes towards volunteerism and promote active citizenship and collaboration – while respecting diversity and the value of pluralism.

One cornerstone of the project is bringing together youth from various backgrounds to jointly find solutions alongside religious, education and government leaders. The youth groups also organize and conduct discussions and joint social actions together with peers from different backgrounds. This includes organizing food-sharing events, planting trees at each other’s place of worship (church, temple or mosque) and assisting communities in maintaining joint facilities (e.g., school gardening or pond cleaning).

These efforts are producing results: Religious leaders have started to stand up and defend youth – irrespective of their faith – as seen in the case of a Christian priest defending Muslim and Buddhist youth in a dispute. And girls, who are often excluded from community-based religious activities, are now being allowed to join; some have even dared to voice their opinions in these settings. Changes like this have a huge effect on young people’s lives.

Creating safe spaces to ask questions and learn

Schools with children from different backgrounds are often the spaces that initiate joint activities to discuss the violent past and make the educational environment safer for all girls and boys. In 2018, in the Digana area around Kandy, youth experienced anti-Muslim pogroms that were fuelled by online misinformation and hate speech. Through the EMPOWER project, a student named Kaushalya and her peers participated in awareness-raising sessions on issues like fake news and misinformation that depicted Muslim youth as enemies, hateful perpetrators and initiators of violence. They also had the opportunity to mingle with youth from other ethno-religious or cultural groups.

© Patrick Rohr
Kaushalya Kuganeshwaran, 20, a former student member of a coexistence club. © Patrick Rohr

Through a newly introduced coexistence club they held “Shramadana” (traditional joint voluntary activities) like tree-planting, blood donation campaigns and celebrated religious festivals. The club also started to publish a monthly magazine to improve relations between communities. Kaushalya has how finished high school and is supporting the club in conducting co-existence workshops at schools in the area. 

Young people need space to explore who they are and how they relate to others. Fear is very detrimental to becoming an active and responsible citizen. Hence, strengthening youth’s resilience to all forms of psychological or physical violence is a key component for the prevention of violent extremism.  Resilience exists in all individuals and can be developed further by strengthening young people and creating space for dialogues, shared visions, communal harmony and enhancing trust and interaction between youth in Sri Lanka for a peaceful and prosperous future.

By the end of 2023 the EMPOWER program had reached over 22,000 people from different communities and areas in Sri Lanka. The program is expected to continue at least until the end of 2025 and is currently in the process of publishing more open calls for proposals from local civil society organizations to support PVE initiatives. Initiatives that previously received funding and have proven very successful can receive further support to build on their experience and spread the message even further.

Helvetas in Sri Lanka

Helvetas has been working in Sri Lanka since the 1970s, and had a long-term focus on water, rural infrastructure and agriculture. This work started in close collaboration with one of the country’s most important local civil society organizations, working hand-in-hand to address poverty and exclusion.

With the intensification of the war and the 2004 tsunami, Helvetas’ efforts shifted to humanitarian aid and to addressing peace and coexistence, which remains one of the cornerstones of our engagement in Sri Lanka.

Helvetas has also worked for many years on safe labor migration in collaboration with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the Sri Lankan government, the International Labour Organization and the International Organization for Migration.

From 2015 onward, the organization started to focus on youth to prepare and explore pathways for a peaceful future, building on its earlier work on social cohesion and governance. When Sri Lanka was hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis and defaulted on its foreign debts in 2022, activities prioritized saving lives and engaging the existing youth groups in assisting their communities. At the same time, as new violence between religious groups erupted, the prevention of violence and violent extremism gained importance.

Helvetas Sri Lanka currently has about 22 staff. Youth engagement remains an important area of engagement, but with a special view to sustainable economic engagement, such as in youth-led social enterprises and cooperatives. Since food security, climate change and sustainable livelihoods have become more pressing issues, Helvetas is now exploring sustainable and biodiverse uses of the natural landscape, which is shared by humans and wildlife, such as elephants.

About the Author
Partnership & Capacity Development Coordinator

How Helvetas Supports People in Sri Lanka

Helvetas advocates in Sri Lanka for fair and safe conditions in labor migration. We also promote social harmony in the country.

Conflict Transformation

Sustainable development can only happen in a peaceful context, where human rights are respected and promoted.