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Strengthening and supporting the voice of children and youth is extremely vital in creating a vibrant society, where diversity is respected; acknowledged; celebrated and tolerated. It is also highly important to realize that the children and youth can propose extremely creative and sustainable remedies to transform complex social conflicts in our country. Therefore, inclusion of children and youth in postwar reconciliation activities must be given highest priority, said Prof. W. A. D. P. Wanigasundera, Chairperson of Sri Lanka Development Journalist Forum (SDJF).

He noted this, while sharing the initial findings and observations on Sri Lanka Forum Theatre program. The final phase of Sri Lankan Forum Theatre Program (SLFTP) is being implemented by SDJF, in the northern province, with the aim of promoting the culture of non-violence and pluralistic values such as tolerance, accepting diversity, respecting differences, equality, justice, handling social issues, non-violent problem solving amongst adults, children and youth (aged 16-19). The purpose of this program is also to help young Forum Artists, to engage children and youth, as potential allies, in promoting co-existence, peace and culture of non-violence. Through the last three phases, of Sri Lankan Forum theatre program, it was learned that the creativity, critical thinking, innovative ideas and free expression of young people, is very much vital in constructing a collective Sri Lankan identity with due respect to diversity.

Further speaking, Prof. Wanigasundera noted that SDJF has trained nearly 48 young Forum Artistes (Male 32, Female 16) to perform forum plays in 40 selected schools in four districts – Kilinochchi, Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna in the Northern Province. SDJF is working in partnership with the Ministry of National Co-Existence Dialogue and Official Languages, Ministry of Education (Northern Province), Provincial Education Department (North), University of Visual and Performing Arts and University of Jaffna in implementing this program. This program is being supported by U. S. Embassy in Colombo. SDJF is also working with 6 experts and academicians in producing a Forum Theatre and Youth and Peace building Manual for the benefit of children and youth in Sri Lanka. After attending a series of professional Forum Theatre trainings, 48 Young forum artistes who represent different ethnic and faith groups ended up developing 10 emotionally powerful drama stories that reflect perspectives of children and youth, broadly respecting collective identity and respect for diversity. Out of 40 proposed forum theatre performances, nearly 30 have been concluded in Mannar, Vauniya, and Kilinochchi. Nearly 20 thousand young school kids from the Northern Province reported to be attended the performances. The evaluation done by SDJF noted that young children and youth have shown active interest not only in taking part as ‘spect-actors’, but sharing their critical views on various community issues affecting them and their communities.

The initial evaluation done by SDJF on the effectiveness of the Forum Theatre in empowering young children observed an enabling culture within the school environment should be created for young kids to entertain freedom of expression from the early ages. Looking at the overall enthusiasm shown and kinds of perspectives shared by young children, they need platform to talk, express themselves, and propose their critical ideas. V. Katheeswaran, an artist from Kilinochchi stated “This program has given voice to the voiceless and I am one among them,”. S. Mary Stella, another young artist from Mannar noted that “Forum theatre program has made me realized that I have a strong role to play in my society. It helped me and my colleagues to understand underlying root causes of conflicts.

These forum dramas always motivated us to explore collaborative solutions for community issues”. Several school principals noted that the students who came forward with interventions to the Forum plays are young children. One of the notable observation was that most students who proposed alternative interventions to the forum plays were never used to speak in public events at school. In that case the forum performances have made them to voice their concerns and bring their perspectives out. In several cases, it was observed that the young children were extremely creative in proposing innovative, acceptable and sustaining solutions for the complex community issues. Gowripalan Sribala, a teacher from V/ Puthukkulam M.V School in Vavuniya told that he was surprised to see the way some students coming forward to participate in the forums voluntarily, as they are the very reserved ones in their classrooms.

“Through this forum, our children have gained the confidence to bring a change in the society and also proved us what they are capable of ”. Through the forum, some students also expressed their hidden feelings and traumatic experiences they have been holding back for a long time, some of which, the teachers and the closest friends were not aware of. The students made use of the stage to make the kind of differences they wish to see in the society. Sahaya Mary, a student of Mn/ St. Xavier’s Girls College, (National School), M. M .V, Mannar, broke into tears when she witnessed a forum performance of a child being hated and ignored by the own family and school. She, who also experiences the same in her family, came forward to make a change she wishes to see in her family.

“I understand that I cannot change my parents immediately, but this platform has given me the confidence that I can change my parents through constant and effective dialogue”. G. Nishanthan, a student of Mn/ M. M. V, Adamban School in Mannar, said that the forum theatre program reminded me of my responsibility to take care of my parents and I will ensure that my friends do the same. If we all get together to change the world, we will do it one day,” said Nishanthan with a lot of confidence.

Speaking on the importance of promoting pluralistic values amongst children, Hon. Kandiah Sarveswaran, Minister of Education, Cultural Affairs, Sports and Youth Affairs of the Northern Province said that it is essential to teach the students from a very basic level, on how anti-social activities affect individuals and the society, as this will help them to bring positive changes in the society. Currently, the SDJF is in the process of preparing Forum Theatre and youth and Peace building training and learning Manual, which will enable students/ youths to use forum theatre as an effective tool to promote pluralism and foster social change. Upon completion of the workbook, SDJF will hold a beneficial summit for the youngsters on the forum theatre program. The manual will be launched during that summit.