Holistic Youth Development as a Life Course Approach to Violence Prevention
Globally, research shows that there is a close association between boy’s childhood exposure to violence and the perpetration of intimate partner violence by men in adulthood. In the context of Sri Lanka, this link especially came into light through a 2013 study by CARE International which interviewed nearly 1300 women and men in 4 districts across the country. Kamani Jinadasa, who was a project director and member of the research team in this study at the time, later went on to start the organisation ‘Shanthi Maargam’ that works with adolescents in predominantly low income poverty settings in Colombo with the aim of preventing violence in these communities.
Kamani explained that the bedrock of Shanthi Maargam is to create safe spaces and opportunities to enhance the emotional wellbeing of adolescents. Through the provision of psychosocial services to strengthen emotion management, Shanthi Maargam mainly works to address emotional harms on children as a result of early exposure to violence, and to influence positive gender norms, attitudes, and behaviours from a young age, to prevent the perpetration of violence at later stages in life.
The Sri Lankan Context
This approach is new to the Sri Lankan context, where mental health, especially of men and boys, is largely overlooked. Youth in Sri Lanka are both subjected to violence and unequal treatment and as well as blamed for violent behaviour, such as during youth unrest and violent conflicts in the past. While issues of substance abuse, unemployment, and sexual violence are recognised as contributors to poor mental health and high rates of suicides, there are insufficient youth friendly, effective mechanisms to improve the emotional wellbeing of young people.
Conceptual Framework and Programme Activities
Against this backdrop, Shanthi Maargam creates safe spaces for adolescents to openly discuss their daily struggles and express emotions that are otherwise curtailed in society, to seek help for emotional healing and holistic youth development, which is an approach to address the entire development of an adolescent. This includes using a positive youth development approach and the provision of tools for youth to increase their emotion management.
The organisation is comprised of two arms for the provision of counselling services and community outreach. Community outreach activities create awareness among community members of the availability of psychosocial support as well as drama and art therapy for emotional healing, including peer-led discussion groups on gender norms, masculinities, and how to address issues with relationships, bullying and sexual and reproductive health. Counselling services are provided for adolescents who arrive via referrals, a hotline, and word of mouth. The counselling services also combine drama and art therapy for emotional healing. These services take a pluralistic approach and are open for all young people irrespective of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, (dis)ability and HIV status.
Emphasis on Training People
According to Kamani, at Shanthi Maargam, training and supervision of counsellors and volunteers is key to successful programme implementation. Much emphasis is placed on ensuring that their staff has the right attitude and capacity to work with young people, with an understanding of positive gender norms and a non-judgmental and nonviolent approach.
The organisation has trained psychosocial counsellors and volunteers who are skilled at working with young people, sensitive to their struggles and working in low income poverty settings. They are trained in dealing with issues such as violence in the home, bullying in schools, and other factors affecting adolescents’ emotional health and their development into adulthood. They can work to introduce positive gender norms and attitudes, teach mindfulness and conflict resolution skills. They can also refer youth for individual sessions with a psychosocial counsellor if they need further help.
Rooted in Feminist Value, Evidence and Partnership
Kamani has ensured that Shanthi Maargam is based on feminist values with accountability to youth from all population sub-groups including the most vulnerable by taking a non-judgmental, nonviolent approach.
The programme activities are based on research evidence on proven methods for positive youth development, encouraging reflection of harmful and limiting traditional roles of women and girls, addressing harmful masculine norms and attitudes and are grounded in the local culture and context. Shanthi Maargam values partnership and collaboration among other community and national level organisations committed to working with youth. They are committed to learning from other organisations and as well as generating new learnings and sharing successful approaches for holistic youth development.
Successes, Challenges and Future Hopes
Since its inception in 2016, the programme has not yet undergone any rigorous quantitative or qualitative evaluation of its results. However, according to regular monitoring, the results of Shanthi Maargam’s work look very promising.
Overall, the staff have observed good engagement among boys in sessions on positive masculinities and building commitment to prevent violence against women and girls. There have been examples of boys embracing positive gender norms – for example engaging with work that women typically do, such as household chores and pledging to reduce harmful behaviour towards girls.
Shanthi Maargam hopes to conduct a rigorous qualitative and quantitative evaluation to evaluate and document its successes in the future.
Some of the challenges they face include finding good counsellors with the right skills and good feminist values to work with young people. Kamani’s dream is for Shanthi Maargam to set up an exclusive youth counselling centre with improved capacity to work with LGBT persons and people with (dis)abilities.
Kamani Jinadasa has been working in the areas of promoting women’s rights, preventing gender-based violence (GBV), engaging men for gender equality and furthering the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS for the past 11 years. Kamani obtained her Master of Health Sciences from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2014 in the area of Reproductive, Perinatal and Women’s Health. From 2010-2013 Kamani implemented a project on Engaging Men and Boys for Gender Equality as Project Director at Care International Sri Lanka. Under her leadership the project conducted the largest quantitative study involving men in Sri Lanka on their attitudes and perceptions on GBV and gender equality. The study was conducted in collaboration with Partners for Prevention as part of the original UN Multi-country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific. From 2014-2015 Kamani was the Primary Prevention Specialist (violence against women and girls) at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) at their Headquarters in New York, USA. As a consultant in Sri Lanka, Kamani has been involved in developing National Guidelines for child protection work for the National Child Protection Authority, was the Gender Advisor at the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs on behalf of UNFPA, and currently serves as the Senior Gender Specialist for the World Bank. In her voluntary capacity Kamani was the former Honorary Secretary of the Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka. In 2016 Kamani started her own NGO, Shanthi Maargam in Sri Lanka, was founded on the basis of the findings from the original UN Multi-country Study in Sri Lanka.
(The story was written by Prashanthi Jayasekara based on an interview with Kamani Jinadasa)