As a daughter of a migrant, whose father fled Croatia in the 1950s to settle in Melbourne, I was always conscious that my Dad’s boat story made me different in the school yard. At recess and lunch, to avoid the jibes, I hung out with other migrant kids; first-generation Asians; second-generation Italians and Greeks; kids from Madagascar, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and Spain. I had the United Nations of mates.
We came together because the colour of our skin, shape of our face or our accents made us stand out. But there was one space where none of these things mattered - the sports field. Sport became the way we proved that, despite our physical and cultural differences, we were just like everyone else. Sport made us winners.
This is why it is such joy to champion a program fusing sport with human rights.
Human Rights are Aussie Rules (HRAR) is an education project using sport to teach children about Freedom, Respect, Equality and Dignity. Through a half day incursion into schools and events at community festivals, we teach children how principles of fair play on the sports field can apply in everyday life.
The right to wear a team scarf is no, of course, no different than the right to wear a headscarf. By educating future Australian citizens on the importance of respecting diversity, we hope to reduce incidence of racial, religious and gender based bullying in schools and beyond into adulthood.
Sport is a powerful language in Australia and around the world because it defies cultural and linguistic boundaries and unites people in ways other social compacts can only dream of doing. With its codified rules of good sportsmanship, sport is the perfect metaphor for good citizenship.
The program was developed to fill a gap in the National Curriculum, where the absence of human rights education has seen the Australian Government criticised numerous times by United Nations treaty bodies and the High Commission for Human Rights. A review of the national Civics and Citizenship curriculum taking place right now is an opportunity to rectify this learning deficit and the program has already offered suggestions on how to embed human rights into the curriculum.
The key to teaching young people about respect is to respect them; to provide a learning environment that is empowering and uses communication and learning techniques that are child-centred. This is why, instead of the usual classroom teaching methods, HRAR adopts a popular education theory that uses theatre, interactive game based learning, mass participation and entertaining online games to work with children to explore human rights principles. We hope by making our program fun, as well as interactive and educational, that we are building the foundation for a lasting commitment to human rights.
The joy of volunteering for the project is the immediacy of the impact on young people. Whenever we talk about Nicky Winmar, the brave indigenous footballer who bared his black skin in defiance of racist taunts by the crowd, children respond with emotion and indignation. In those sessions, you can hear a pin drop when we tell them of the lengths the AFL went to change the rules to prevent players, clubs and supporters from racially abusing people.
Kids don’t have to be sports stars to learn the message. Our program lets children live the experience of what it is like to be unfairly disadvantaged on an uneven playing field. It then empowers them to find solutions to make the game of life fairer for everyone involved.
As one observer to a workshop noted, “Kids know, often better than anyone else, what’s fair and what’s not.” And when they don’t understand, or where peer pressure to bully and belittle fellow classmates becomes overwhelming – the Human Rights are Aussie Rules project teaches children about all the things we have in common. In our learning modules, the Universal Declaration of our Human Rights becomes a lived reality, not just a list of abstract ideas.
People the world over enjoy the Olympics because the event embodies everything good about unity of the mind, body and spirit. A good sport is more than just athletic prowess – a good sport embodies fairness, dignity, tenacity and love. The greatest moments in sport – the Black Power Salute in 1968, Cathy Freeman’s Gold Medal Win in Sydney and Oscar Pistorius' ground-breaking sprint in 2012 – are also great moments in the development of human rights. These are important lessons for our children.
*Tanja Kovac is a writer and lawyer and National Co-ordinator of the Human Rights are Aussie Rules Project, which she founded at the Eastern Community Legal Centre in Melbourne and now has offices across the country. You can follow the program on social media at Facebook and on Twitter at @AusRights.