Aid Sri Lanka Foundation

Women’s Swimming Project - Project details

This project was started up when British Swimming teacher, Christina Fonfe, came to Sri Lanka to help tsunami survivors in any way she could. She began by using hotel pools to provide swimming lessons for the children living in the camps and villages nearby. The classes were aimed at equipping them with basic skills while providing a fun activity away from the camps and freeing up time for their parents. It was of course also a way to decrease their fear of the water which, already prevalent before the tsunami, was now heightened. The lessons were an immediate success and Christina graduated her first class of 33 smiling children on 21 March 2005. The benefits of the classes were clear, the demand large and Christina’s enthusiasm and skill in plentiful supply.

The project was now ready to be developed into a long-term and locally sustainable initiative. The focus shifted to women and teenage girls, where cultural practices were denying them the opportunity of learning to swim. By training women specifically, it is more likely that they will pass on the knowledge to the children in their care, particularly girls, who otherwise may not have a chance to learn to swim elsewhere, thus enlarging the circle of benefit and making the project sustainable locally. In the wake of the tsunami, the women of the South realised the value for being able to swim and jumped at the chance to learn.

There were cultural barriers to overcome; these women would not normally feel comfortable wearing just a swimsuit in the presence of men. With few pools remaining intact after the tsunami and those few being given over to tourists, the task of finding a suitable location not easy. However, local knowledge paid off and with the elbow grease of Christina’s husband Mike, a small, secluded but derelict pool at Palm Forest Plantation was rapidly transformed into the perfect location. Aid Sri Lanka are renting the whole property and can ensure that no men are present during the women-only lessons and they now have the complete privacy they need. The pool is the perfect size for this group. With newcomers scared of water, the small size is reassuring, yet there is enough length to get a flow going once they master the strokes.

The swimmers have made astounding progress. None of the women had been in water deeper than their ankles before coming to Palm Forest. Now they feel at home in the water and all of them can float and do basic swimming strokes. They have gained confidence in the water and have enormous pride in their achievement. In addition to providing a useful skill, these lessons are also an enjoyable and empowering experience for raising the social status of these women in the eyes of their menfolk.

A local university undergraduate, Miss Inki Abeyratna, who was Christina’s interpreter and also first adult female swimming student, will become the first fully qualified female Sri Lankan swimming teacher in Weligama. Christina sponsored Inki to undertake a British Amateur Swimming Association Swimming Teachers Course in the UK.

Once the women swimmers have reached a suitable level, they will be offered the opportunity to train as swimming instructors. In this way they will be able to train further women and girls at pools across the region and country-wide. In addition, the skill could provide an income for the women, many of whom were already in a precarious economic situation, now exacerbated by the tsunami.

Long term, there is a need to ensure training standards are recognised internationally as well as nationally and that women’s swimming interests are represented in any public swimming pools being built. The development of a Women’s Swimming Association would facilitate this. This project aims to make such an organisation 100% Sri Lankan and completely self-sustaining locally within two years, provided that parallel projects to build large public swimming pools across the nation come to fruition within the same timescale. By securing a formal national focal point for qualified Sri Lankan women swimming teachers, the status and value of the contribution that women would make to the well-being of the whole Sri Lankan nation in sport, health and education would be enhanced.