Ending violence in Pakistan starts in the playground

Pakistan is rated 148 of 149 countries for gender equality — can play change that?

Children playing together on a basketball court

Right to Play uses structured play-based activities to teach life skills to adolescents and reduce violence in schools. A recent evaluation demonstrated significant reductions in peer violence and depression scores among participants. Advocates hope it could reduce violence in Pakistani society at large by making children agents of change.

Results & Impact

The Right to Play program dramatically reduced peer violence, corporal punishment, depression scores, patriarchal gender attitudes and the rate at which children witnessed domestic violence in the home. The rate at which children experienced violence from their peers fell from 92% to 84% among boys and from 78% to 50% among girls.

Key Parties

Right to Play, UK Department for International Development, Agha Khan University

How

The Pakistani implementation of Right to Play provided 120 sessions of structured play over two years. Each session lasts around 35 minutes, and concludes with a discussion of what lessons children have learned through the activity. The program covers an extensive curriculum through play-based learning, including communication skills, confidence, non-violence and leadership. Each activity has a clear objective, and each session concludes with reflection on what has been learned and how it can be applied to daily life.

Where

Hyderabad, Pakistan

Target Group

Children

Cost & Value

Costs vary from school to school, but remain roughly in line with the cost of an ordinary physical education lesson

Stage

Started in 2015, concluded in 2018.

Hurdles

Right to Play encountered relatively few hurdles to implementation, according to its country director. By using play — a non-partisan issue in a country where gender equality remains a fraught area — traditional political resistance was largely absent. Some adolescent boys were initially opposed to the idea of girls joining their activities, but that evaporated when they started the course.

Replication

Right to Play, founded in Canada, has worked in 18 countries worldwide, including Ghana, Mali, Thailand and China.

The Story

When four-time Olympic medallist Johann Olav Koss travelled to Eritrea in 1994, the plight of children in the war-torn country prompted the figure skater to found what has become one of the world’s largest programs dedicated to the power of play.

Some 24 years later, Right to Play (RTP) works in 18 countries across the world, providing play-based curricula and programming to over one million children living in humanitarian, emergency and post-conflict settings.

In Pakistan, RTP has been providing play-based learning since 2008, but in the last three years, with an injection of funding from the UK’s Department for International Development, the program has transformed schools in Hyderabad, a bustling city in Sindh province in southern Pakistan.

Corporal punishment and peer violence at school are both common in much of Pakistan, as is gender-based violence: last year, Pakistan ranked 148th of 149 countries for gender equality. Social norms that encourage or normalise violence are often learned in adolescence. RTP, which engages 10-14-years-olds, intervenes early — nipping attitudes that normalise violence in the bud.

Pakistan’s Right to Play program is a 120-session program of play activities delivered twice a week for two years. Each play activity is designed to nurture a specific life skill, including confidence, tolerance, leadership and communication skills.

“Our education system is not based on life skills, it’s based on rote learning,” said Iqbal Jatoi, country director of Right to Play in Pakistan. Instead, RTP offers “experiential learning” with practical takeaways for children to practise in their lives outside of the playground.

In Pakistan, RTP is delivered to children aged between 10 and 14. “It’s the time when they are developing a sense of agency,” said Jatoi — a period which is ripe for transforming harmful attitudes and antisocial behaviours.

Each session isn’t just play, however. Following the activity, children are invited to reflect on what they have learned, connect it to their lives, and apply it. “Reflect, connect, apply — that’s sort of our theory of change,” said Jatoi.

A recent evaluation has found significant successes in the program’s ability to reduce violence among school children. The rate at which children experienced violence from their peers dropped from 92% to 84% among boys and from 78% to 50% among girls.

Depression scores also fell, as did corporal punishment in schools. Children involved even witnessed less violence in the home. “Children become agents of change by internalising the learnings they learn in school and taking them home,” explained Jatoi.

Funding from the UK’s Department for International Development is now at an end, and the future of Right to Play in Pakistan will depend on government support. Jatoi and his team hope that the program will be incorporated into national school curricula and rolled out nationwide.

But senior officials appear keen to keep RTP going, according to Jatoi: while issues such as gender equality and violence prevention remain sensitive, changing social norms through play-based learning has avoided some of the traditional resistance to discussing gender and inequality.

“Sport and play are non-political, non-partisan, non-denominational issues — every child loves to play,” said Jatoi. In that, Right to Play might be an important first step in Pakistan’s long march to gender equality and a society free of violence. — Edward Siddons

(Picture credit: Pexels)

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