With USAID assistance, 518 student leaders in Sri Lanka broke ethnic and religious divides to participate in a five-day Future Leaders Conference to Stand Up Against Hate Speech in June 2013. The students came from 58 high schools in all 25 districts of the country and were led by university students representing schools countrywide.
USAID, through its Office of Transition Initiatives, provided training guides and posters, helped with travel costs for girls from schools in the north and south, and supported the creation of a post-conference documentary to help create wider awareness, promote the work of reconciliation, and ensure the messages of the conference spread beyond the attendees.
Inspired by guest speakers, stories of their peers, and examples set by the primarily female group of university students who guided them through the conference, these youth have now returned to their schools prepared to lead their classmates to counter hate speech and ethnic and religious division.
Youth leadership is important in Sri Lanka, a country where a 30-year internal conflict left many members of its multi-ethnic population fearful of “the other." In recent months, this fear has manifested itself in attacks against Muslim individuals and businesses. The youth conference, held in the southern city of Galle, offered an opportunity to counteract this type of hateful behavior by galvanizing Sri Lanka’s best hope for peace: its youth.
“I had heard about the unity formed through the Future Leaders Conference, and I didn’t believe it. We gathered here as strangers and I was so nervous and scared to mingle with others …. Now, when I leave [here], I’ll have friends all over Sri Lanka, and we will work to discard the hate formed in this country,” said Chandima Nishani, 17, from Anuradhapura.
Such interethnic bonds are urgently needed; many Sri Lankan youth who have grown up amidst the conflict lack friends outside their own ethnic group. These five days gave the future leaders a chance to live together, learn together and listen to one another’s stories. Now, they are able to come to their own conclusions.
Such promising leadership will likely have a lasting impact. “There have been political attempts to create reconciliation and we failed. The young leaders are the ones who can create this reconciliation,” noted Nalliah Ashokbharan, a legal scholar who presented at the conference.
Last updated: September 11, 2013