The Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees the right to play and recreational activities to all children. However, millions of children are denied this right, never experiencing this vital aspect of their development because of war, disease and poverty.
UNICEF, in conjunction with FIFA, and several well-known football players, such as David Beckham of the United Kingdom, El Hadj Diouf of Senegal and Luis Figo of Portugal, is helping children around the world fulfil their right to play through football. With a host of organizations working on the ground, UNICEF and FIFA are targeting hard-to-reach young people – those driven from their homes by war, for example – with programmes that use football to help them reclaim their childhoods.
UNICEF has found that football can help children recover from trauma by encouraging their physical and emotional development. Football helps provide a return to normalcy, fosters self-esteem, and encourages teamwork, which can be a valuable tool in conflict management and peace education.
UNICEF in the Field
In southern Sudan, UNICEF has sponsored football matches for demobilised child soldiers returning home from war and trying to reintegrate into their home communities. Many former child soldiers, faced with scorn from community and family members, often undereducated and lacking vocational skills, and deeply traumatised by their combat experiences, have difficulty returning to civilian life.
The UNICEF-supported football matches provide an organised re-introduction to the community, in which children are not under pressure to talk or explain themselves but can slowly adapt to their old surroundings while working through tensions and aggressions on the playing field.
In Afghanistan, Albania and Macedonia, UNICEF has helped to establish ‘child-friendly spaces’ in refugee camps as places for recreation and informal classes for children.
At the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, many children are playing football for the first time in their lives. Because the Taliban banned games, UNICEF workers are finding themselves in the novel position of explaining to children what playing means. In Herat, in western Afghanistan, UNICEF has also helped organize football matches at the Maslakh camp for internally displaced persons, where more than 50,000 children live.
In Liberia, thousands of children have benefited from programmes which are aimed at providing war-affected youth with life skills, as well as outlets to help heal the countless emotional wounds of conflict.
In Sri Lanka, UNICEF has helped organize a 'Bridge to Peace' initiative that will bring together Sinhala and Tamil children from opposite sides of the country's civil war to play football. UNICEF is also working with FIFA to provide footballs, nets, equipment, training and coaching to needy children throughout the country.
During the 2002 FIFA World Cup, May 31-June 30, UNICEF will attempt to negotiate ‘Days of Tranquility’ in regions beset by conflict, so that it can distribute school supplies and recreational equipment as well as provide children with immunization and other health services.