You are here

Using sport for social impact: Perspectives from Cambodia

Copyrights: Indochina Starfish Foundation

Using sport for social impact: Perspectives from Cambodia

The Indochina Starfish Foundation’s Sport for All Abilities project is the only initiative of its kinds that supports a wide range of Cambodians with disabilities and impairments to play sports.

“Playing football with my friends and making new ones. These are my best moments now,” says 36-year-old Heng Kunthea. Kunthea had been an avid football player throughout his life until he lost his eyesight in a traffic accident 5 years ago. For some time, he was unable to return to the sport he loved, until he joined Indochina Starfish Foundation’s (ISF) Sports for All Abilities project, the only initiative of its kind supporting a wide range of Cambodians with disabilities and impairments to play sports. “It took me many years to fully recover, and football has helped me in the healing process, physically and mentally.”

Kunthea is just one example we have seen of a person living with a disability being transformed through our award-winning Sport for All Abilities project. We’ve seen children with physical disabilities radically improve their fitness and health, and watched the confidence of players living with HIV skyrocket as they defy stigma to play alongside other youths.

Since its inception in 2011, our coaches have become much better at their jobs by learning how to adapt to the diverse needs of different players. Many of them consider their work with players with disabilities to be the most rewarding and fun work that they do.

Clearly, there are challenges that always need to be overcome, which is why we tap into their expertise of an array of partners who specialize in supporting persons with disabilities. The biggest challenge is that because sports for disabled people is such a new concept in Cambodia, there are no formal training courses or qualifications within the country, and the coaches have to be creative in the way that they learn. “I tell them to work from the heart,” says Samedy Yin, who leads ISF’s football programme.

Another, more difficult, cultural challenge is that some families of disabled players don’t want their children to play football. They are often afraid that physical exertion will make their condition worse. Even an adult like Kunthea faced opposition from his family before they saw sport’s importance to him and changed their minds. “To overcome these barriers, we encourage families to join football events to see how strong and happy their children are on the field,” Samedy expands. “Social workers also talk to the parents about the benefits of sport for their children’s health and career.”

These benefits are often much greater and deeper than even we expect. While the health benefits of sport are obvious and expected, the impact on self-esteem and sense of inclusion can be more profound. Phanat is an 18-year-old player with an intellectual disability, who struggles with communication. He says, “When I play football, I feel that I am not different from other young people at my age, and that we’re all working to develop ourselves.”

At ISF, we recognise that we are just one NGO and that we need to work with the government and many other organisations in order to change the lives of persons with disabilities in Cambodia. This is why we are actively encouraging NGOs which support children with disabilities to include sports activities in their own plans or enhance and amplify them if they already do.

“I have two big dreams for the future,” says Samedy. “The first is that I want to see a lot more sporting events created which cater for players with disabilities. I want them to have the same chance to compete as anyone, and to show the world their talents. That’s the kind of thing that creates social change. Next, I want to see some of these players compete in international tournaments. I want to show the world what we have started to do in Cambodia, and what talents these amazing young people have.”

Jamie Gill is a multi-award-winning consultant with 20+ years’ experience in using creativity to make brands and messages come alive and invade people's brains. After working in London for 16 years, he's now based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


Article type



Jamie Gill


Thursday, November 26, 2020 - 05:58