Disused shipping containers are becoming the unlikely symbols of a movement to change the lives of children affected by a legacy of apartheid and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
The containers are used to house what are known as Safe Parks, in effect youth clubs, where children from the ages of 6 to 15 can go after school to play, get a meal and have space and facilities to do their homework.
Twenty-five years after the first free elections in South Africa, divisions and economic marginalisation of communities still exist, affecting the lives of children.
A team of researchers from the University of Leeds is involved in an international collaboration to look at ways civil society groups, such as the Safe Parks movement, can foster grassroots activism, allowing communities to get involved in politics and change.
Take Gauteng Province to the east of Johannesburg. It is home to a quarter of South Africa’s population. In the Ekurhuleni Municipality, a large number of children have lost both parents and live in extreme poverty.
Some children come from households where there are no adults.
Staff who run the Safe Parks say they not only provide child care, they also nurture and inspire what could easily become a ‘lost generation’.
The Leeds researchers use arts and creative practice to help young people have their voices heard. They have made a range of films, from dramas calling for an end to gender-based violence to documentaries about children living without birth certificates.
The young people are also organising themselves so they can access state funding to keep the Safe Parks open.
In partnership with National Association of Child Care Workers, the international project has developed a set of standards to ensure staff working in the Safe Parks are appropriately trained.
Funded by the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), the researchers want to identify approaches that are proving most effective in fostering reconciliation and community development, vital if the cycle of violence and economic deprivation of the past is to be halted.
Professor Paul Cooke, from the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at University of Leeds, is leading the project. He said: “Safe parks are playing an important role in protecting vulnerable children.
“It keeps them away from gangs that might want to get them involved in drugs or to stop them becoming the victims of sexual trafficking.
“But the young people are also developing leadership skills, to give them the ability to try and influence events that shape their lives.”
The GCRF grant was awarded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). GCRF is part of the the UK’s aid budget with the aim of funding world-class research into the big challenges facing the world: climate change, disease, food production, water conservation and rebuilding post-conflict societies.
The partnership in South Africa also involves the Bishop Simeon Trust, a UK charity. Its director, Martin Keat, said: “The University of Leeds has provided us with fantastic support in terms of research-based innovation around the Safe Parks.
“This has resulted in the development of a youth leadership model using creative arts which has incredible potential to help children and young people to explore and process unimaginably difficult issues, whilst also developing their own confidence and leadership skills.”
Professor Andrew Thompson, Executive Chair of the AHRC said: “It is great to support UK researchers working in partnership with governments, NGOs, community groups, international agencies and researchers across developing countries.
“Research is vital for global development, helping us to understand where we are today, what we could achieve in the future and providing innovative tools, strategies and policies to achieve these goals.
“But success in development requires a depth of understanding that can only be achieved through equitable partnership and engagement of diverse stakeholders such as industrial sectors, civil society groups, NGOs and governments.”
The project in Gauteng Province is just one strand in a larger investigation into the role that civil society groups can play in reconciliation and in building strong communities. It is currently working in post-conflict countries from Colombia and Venezuela to Cambodia, Kosovo, Rwanda and South Africa.
In Rwanda, the research focuses on the work of arts organisations, helping to foster dialogue between Hutu and Tutsi communities. In Colombia, the researchers are working with rural and indigenous communities with a deep seated distrust of formal state structures. In Kosovo, the focus is on the way collaborative arts projects can be used to build relations between Serbian and Albanian communities.
Professor Cooke added: “This has been a fascinating project to be part of. Particularly rewarding has been the opportunity to support hard-pressed civil society organisations to gain time for reflection, to share practice learn from organisations facing similar pressures in very different global contexts.”
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