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Overcoming Divisions and Empowering Youth Through Active Citizenship

My name is Divya Prashanthi (21) and I am the Leader of the Meeriyabadda ‘Rainbow Team’s Active Citizens Group. We noticed a persistent problem in our village: tensions between residents of two streets, Kalaimahal Street and Temple Street. Even though both streets belonged to the same Meeriyabedda Grama Niladhari Division, there were regular disputes between the two groups on even minor matters. These had initially arisen from a decision a few decades ago, in which local school scholarships had been awarded to students of one lane only. This was the starting point for many misunderstandings, causing tensions and low participation from both sides in village activities which were meant to increase cohesion between members of the local community.

Joint participation in religious activities was one such example. In fact, as the disputes mounted, the villagers even stopped visiting the Hindu kovil which was commonly shared by both lanes – leaving it in a dilapidated state. Instead, another kovil was constructed for the use of villagers of one lane alone.

The tensions between the two lanes even hindered local development: when a non-governmental organization (NGO) recently attempted to implement a water infrastructure project in the village, it had to stop all activities and end their project as there was no cooperation between the residents of the two lanes. As a group of Active Citizens trained in alternative dispute resolution (ADR) through the European Union-funded ‘Supporting Effective Dispute Resolution’ (SEDR) project, we identified this as a problem: we needed to mediate mutual understanding between the two lanes through specific interventions.

However, our journey as Active Citizens was not without its challenges. Time management, coordinating group activities, better understanding of competing interests and obtaining necessary permissions from local authorities, all presented hurdles that we had to overcome together. Balancing my job with these responsibilities posed its share of difficulties as well, but I persevered through developing new skills —particularly in public speaking and leadership.

As a group we also faced discrimination due to our age and the underdeveloped village we came from: officials and those in positions of authority initially did not take us seriously and even withheld information from us because we were seen to be too young and unimportant to get involved in resolving community disputes. However, I was not demoralized by this and submitted a Right to Information request with the assistance of the Uva Shakthi Foundation, a partner organization for SEDR in the Uva Province. The successful appeal helped us as a group to organize a mobile administrative service for residents of both lanes, enabling the villagers who lacked vital documents like Birth, Death, and Marriage Certificates to obtain them in just a day’s time. In the end, the very government officials who doubted our abilities, assisted us to make this public service accessible to all, which benefited residents of both streets and in turn contributed to building increased trust in local government.

Using our new ADR knowledge and skills, we rallied villagers from both lanes to engage in community service, or more specifically, a ‘kovil shramadhana’ campaign. This entailed jointly cleaning up the previously abandoned kovil and ensuring that it was properly maintained in the future - helping villagers to better understand their differences and despite them, partake in religious festivities together. We also took steps to establish a Kovil Committee which could oversee the building’s maintenance as well, with its organizational structure being equally comprised of villagers from both lanes.

Our interventions did not end there. Through the insights from the Active Citizens training provided by SEDR, we identified the youth as catalysts for change and peace in our village and ensured their active participation. We integrated sports into our initiatives and action plans, and eventually organised a cricket tournament where young women and men from both lanes competed together in the same team. Recently, both lanes worked together to select the most skilled cricket players as a joint team, representing the entire Meeriyabadda village in cricket tournaments.

Through these initiatives, we used the concepts of social leadership and action to solve local problems through better mutual understanding and trust-building.

As Active Citizens, I am proud to say that my team and I succeeded in bringing about positive change in our village. Our collective efforts not only mediated the lingering dispute between Aaliya Lane and Kalaimahal Lane, but also empowered the youth to become change agents themselves. In terms of my own experience as an Active Citizen, I am encouraged to use my own capabilities and potential to make a lasting impact in my local community.

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