Breaking boundaries and building peace

PEACE IN ACTION, a youth-led workshop for peace-building organized by the International Youth Alliance for Peace (IYAP), was held from 28th August – 30th August 2015 at Spectrum Institute of Science and Technology, No 100, Bauddhaloka Mawatte, Colombo 04. The workshop was an initiative of the IYAP to promote peace through community-led social development and youth empowerment. It focused on various themes including leadership, youth empowerment, gender-based discrimination, human rights, environmental sustainability and social entrepreneurship.

Starting at 10:00 am on 28th August 2015, the first session on leadership and community engagement was facilitated by Krishan Balaji, a member of the Rotaract District Committee. He encouraged the participants of the workshop to take a stand against injustice when they witness it, instead of turning a blind eye. The second session titled “Participation of youth in politics” was conducted by Ishan Jalill, an international champion of the Leonard Cheshire Global Alliance. Also the President and Founder of the youth movement, Action Against Apathy, Mr. Jalill emphasized the importance of political awareness and civic participation among young people, citing the Arab Spring as a significant instance where the youth united to overturn corrupt regimes and dictatorships with the help of social media. He also strongly advocated standing up for the oppressed, quoting the famous words of the German pastor, Martin Niemöller, who publicly opposed the Nazi during WWII:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The next facilitator, Sachinda Dulanjana, a youth volunteer, addressed the participants on the spirit of volunteerism, making the crucial point that volunteerism starts at home. Putting to rest a popular misconception, he explained that volunteerism is not simply about marching in rallies carrying placards, but that it has to extend to every facet of an activist’s life.

Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, founder Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives and the founder Director of the Sri Lanka Chapter of Transparency International, conducted the following discourse on interfaith dialogue, human rights and peace. Having played an active part in the process of rebuilding peace in Sri Lanka after the 30-year conflict, he stressed on the importance of bringing the perpetrators of war crimes to justice via a transparent tribunal and granting closure to the victims of war. The facilitator for the last session of the day was Joanne Kotalawale, UN Youth volunteer and environmentalist. She concluded Day One with a discussion on social entrepreneurship, a concept which plays a significant role in the peace-building process as a method of income to the victims of civil war in Sri Lanka.

The second day of the workshop was kicked off by Bernadine Jayasinghe, Managing Directress at Sirius Academy and news anchor at MTV. She conducted a number of entertaining team-based activities to illustrate her topic, “Team Building, Group dynamic & Discovering Peace.” In one of the exercises, she handed balloons and pins to each participant and asked them to blow the balloons up and “guard” them. Pandemonium resulted with all the participants trying to burst everyone else’s balloons while simultaneously trying to protect their own. The balloons, Ms. Jayasinghe said later, symbolized one’s happiness and peace of mind and the scrimmage that ensued was indicative of the lengths one would go to protect one’s own happiness while destroying another’s.

The second huddle of Day Two was facilitated by Megara Tegal, journalist, photographer and youth activist, on “Tweeting for Social Change.” She advocated Twitter as an effective platform for social media journalism and activism, as it is fast, reliable and has no filter. One of the ongoing issues addressed in the session was the mainstream media suppression of the reports of Coca cola’s oil leak in Kelani River that recently contaminated drinking water. Columnist, blogger and member of the International Youth Task Force, Senel Wanniarachi, conducted the subsequent discussion on “Writing for Social Change”, in which he spoke about the use of new media tools to drive social change. Shayani Weerasinghe, Consultant at Environment Foundations Ltd., was the facilitator for the session on environmental sustainability, during which she commended the participants’ grasp of environmental issues and the keys to sustaining and protecting natural resources.

Specialist in conflict analysis and South East Asian politics, Dr. Ajith Balasooriya, spoke on the succeeding theme on the agenda, “Conflict Resolution and Peace Building.” He called for the disintegration of the caste system within communities, saying that it would be a progressive step towards keeping peace. Dr. Maneesha Wanasinghe-Pasqual, also a specialist in conflict analysis and human rights, rounded up the day’s activities with an interactive session on conflict violence and conflict analysis tools. She highlighted the need for tracing conflict back to its roots before attempting a resolution, so that a better understanding of the underlying motives is achieved in order to effectively put an end to violence.

Abdul Halik Azeez, writer and activist, who has gained widespread recognition on Instagram for his unique take on conceptual and street photography, set into motion the final day of the workshop. His session on narrative photography included an activity which involved the participants’ use of photographic, journalistic and artistic skills to capture and describe meaningful images of everyday life on the streets. The participants used Instagram as a platform to publish the results. One of the stories the project unearthed was of D. M. Dissanayake, 84, who had traveled to Colombo from Kandy, looking for work after being abandoned by his children. He was encountered by the young participants at the doorstep of an adjacent jewelry store, where he lived and slept. Though arthritic and frail, the old man’s fierce sense of independence made him scorn the idea of living closeted in an Elders’ Home. Instead, he preferred to earn a pittance by doing odd jobs for customers at the Manning market and live on his own terms.

The three day workshop culminated with a thought-provoking session on gender equality, sexual and reproductive rights by V. Thushandra, a Global Youth Advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights. His session challenged the participants’ set precepts and ideas on gender, sexuality and related rights and ended with a rousing debate between the participants on issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights. Certificates were awarded to the participants at the end of the workshop by Adhil Bakeer Markar, Director at the National Youth Services Council.

The workshop was a positive step towards peace and progress in the country, with more than fifty young people from all over the island attending. Young artist Vicky, 22, a participant at the workshop, said, “I [saw] so much potential and positive growth. It was so much fun meeting everyone there.”  Reemah, 21, added, “It was an amazing experience being a part of this workshop. I learned to see things from a completely different perspective and it has inspired me to be more socially aware.”

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