‘Exercising Change’ in Palabek refugee settlement

‘Exercising Change’ in Palabek refugee settlement
‘Exercising Change’ in Palabek refugee settlement

Africa-Press – Sierra-Leone. Palabek is home to roughly 57,398 refugees, the majority of whom have fled South Sudan. 85% of arrivals are reported to be women and girls (UNHCR, 2021). In total, around 62% of the refugees in Palabek are under the age of 18, and across Uganda more broadly 57% of refugee children are out of school.

Funded by UEFA Foundation for Children, Street Child and its local partner, African Women and Youth for Action Development (AWYAD) – a women-led organisation who have been implementing child protection programmes in Palabek since 2016 – initiated the Exercising Change programme to improve the physical, mental, and psychosocial wellbeing of 5,192 refugee and host community children through the delivery of sports. Refugee women and men from within the settlement were trained to become inclusive sport coaches and mentors, empowering women to become changemakers within their community and enabling them to continue delivering sports sessions after the conclusion of the project. The programme was implemented in 10 primary schools across Palabek refugee settlement and included the delivery of netball, football, and volleyball sessions. The implementation of regular sport sessions not only contributed to increased physical, mental, and psychosocial wellbeing, but also contributed to increased levels of motivation to attend school, improved community engagement and strengthened social cohesion between host and refugee communities.

The project was designed to respond to the risks girls face in Palabek, as research shows girls in Palabek are at increased risk of early marriage and pregnancy, dramatically impacting their access to vital education. It was evident that young girls’ development needed to be prioritised, and the power of sport could be harnessed to discuss key issues and damaging cultural norms as well as develop essential life skills, values, and encourage school attendance. During the project, Street Child and AWYAD were able to provide support to 2,821 refugee boys and 1,740 refugee girls in addition to 1,285 Ugandan boys and 1,086 Ugandan girls from host communities.

Vital learning was generated to ensure future initiatives like this can reach girls through sport in greater numbers. Findings from the project identified one of the biggest barriers to reaching the desired number of girls was participating girls often prioritised netball and showed less interest in the various other sports in comparison to boys. To ensure successful sports-based interventions in the future, focus ought to be placed on selecting sports that girls express their interest in, or have played previously, through key informant interviews and stakeholder engagement. Through the initial re/integration into sport, it is then expected that other sports, such as football and volleyball, can be introduced. This gradual increase in sport options will provide greater confidence in participation and empower women and girls to access new opportunities and experiences.

The effective delivery of sport sessions provided increased access, trust, and openness between the coaches and participants. This was reinforced as coaches were from the community in which they worked, providing a unique opportunity to address key social issues experienced within the settlements.

During the delivery of the project, there was a noticeable increase in underage sex and teenage pregnancy. This was largely attributable to widespread school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. In reaction to this worrying trend, Street Child and AWYAD initiated engagement sessions with young boys and girls, led by community coaches, to provide awareness of safe sex and establish a safe space to communicate. Within these engagement sessions, open conversations took place to allow boys and girls separately to discuss two key tops; Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV), and Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA). These discussions provided the opportunity for girls, boys, and youths to raise concerns, ask questions, and have the coaches provide answers and solutions.

During the engagement sessions, role models were identified from within the group and were tasked with being the champions on this topic in their schools and communities. This was done to ensure that following the project closure, mechanisms were in place to prohibit SGBV and PSEA as much as possible. These conversations were only possible due to the pre-existing bonds established through sport, demonstrating sports’ ability to challenge and address damaging social norms.

How sport has changed Christina’s life

16-year-old Christina took part in the Exercising Change programme. Christina described how participating in the UEFA programme helped her develop a love for sports after moving with her family to Uganda and settling as a refugee in 2017 due to civil-ethnic disputes.

She said, “From South Sudan, I never dreamt of playing ball games, because it was only big girls allowed to play and chances were not given to young children which is not the case at my new school”. She added, “In South Sudan, in my area, children never had enough time to play after class due to the unstable security situations where, in most cases, we would always leave school early in groups to go home in fear of the rebels”.

Upon starting school in Uganda, she could see that even young children were given the opportunity to play sport during break, lunch and after class. “I got interested and started learning how to play netball. When Street Child gave us coaches to train in sports activities, I became committed to my training and chose to focus on learning netball. I will never forget to continue thanking my sports teachers and coaches for the motivation to always work hard and achieve in sports”.

Christina hopes to become a netball superstar or a sports medical specialist in the future, so that she can help with the dream of other players to reach competitions like the Olympics. She said, “I want to push the boundary of sports. I would like to see myself in the next five or more years remain mentally and physically fit so that I excel in my classroom work and become a sports medical specialist”.


Street Child is one of the UK’s fastest growing international development charities operating in 20 of the world’s most fragile countries, and has already meaningfully transformed educational opportunities for more than half a million children with the goal to reach 1 million and millions more by 2024. Founded with a single project for 100 street-connected children in Sierra Leone in 2008, Street Child aims to ensure that children are safe, in school, and learning – even, and especially in, low-resource environments and emergencies.

sportanddev published this content as part of our partnership with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. For more information on using sport in work with refugees please visit the UNHCR website.

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