Table tennis with refugee women and girls
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disabled table tennis players enjoy a game
Contextualised and evidence-based approaches which centre the target demographic is how the ITTF Foundation works to deliver successful projects which work with displaced women and girls across the world.

By the end of 2020, more than 82 million people have been forcibly displaced. This already alarming number has only been exacerbated by the international crisis caused by the COVID-19, and women and girls are disproportionately affected among the displaced population. Women and girls account for around half of any refugee, internally displaced or stateless population; those who are unaccompanied, pregnant, heads of household, disabled or elderly are considered particularly vulnerable.

The ITTF Foundation works with displaced people through projects in Jordan, Ecuador, and Uganda by partnering with projects at the grassroots which address a variety of concerns surrounding the wellbeing, and sustainable, inclusive, and resilient development of an extremely vulnerable demographic. Each project has led to an enhanced understanding of the nuances surrounding the needs, priorities, and barriers to be addressed to enhance positive impact.

Context is key

A key learning is to contextualise the challenges and associated solutions based on local needs, as it is important to ensure that the activities, stakeholders, and key inputs identified are fit for each project. The stated impact in the theory of change must always be at the centre of all activities and needs to be supported by an ongoing process of evaluation to help consolidate an evidence-based approach.

Most crucially, it is important to place the impact group – in this context, the displaced populations – at the centre of the project at each step. Input must be sought for project design, activity planning, project implementation and evaluation, to create a continuous feedback loop and ensure continued relevance of the project and its theory of change.

Having conducted several activities targeting displaced populations, a key learning has been that a sport-based activity which seeks to engage participation on the grounds of equality, diversity and social integration can often run counterproductive to the intent. For instance, some activities – aimed nobly at breaking down barriers of societal segregation – can often fail to actually result in a balanced diversity of participants, often due to local social and cultural norms, which may discourage some stakeholder groups, such as women and girls, to participate in sport and physical activity in a mixed-gender setting.

When we started offering table tennis session to everyone, but without specifically focussing on women and girls, the sessions consisted exclusively of boys. Only when this was observed, we found solutions to include girls as well – it was merely a question of addressing the issue, and asking ‘Why?’ or more importantly, ‘Why not?’”

              – Karine Teow, Head of Programmes, ITTF Foundation

It is important for projects to factor in cultural norms and longstanding practices with empathy and appreciate that behaviour change is a gradual process which will not automatically be catalysed be an activity based solely on scientific evidence and recommended best practices. Socio-economic development is not straightforward and there is no one-size-fits-all-approach – underestimating the individuality of each situation can have crucial effects for the projects and their stewards.

Across two of our Dream Building with Refugees projects, both based in Jordan, measures and requirements were drastically different from one another. In Azraq, the project offered mixed sessions, accommodating people with disabilities amidst able-bodied participants, as well as girl and boys playing alongside each other. Meanwhile, the project in Za’atari required hiring a female coach to make girls participate in table tennis sessions.

Understanding the local reality is integral to finding solutions and indicators for programme design and delivery, since that makes the project even more accessible and inclusive. Additional resources, and data collection are necessary components to fully understand and design a more inclusive approach.

Nittaku Dream Building with Refugees in Za’atari

Located in northern Jordan, Za’atari is a refugee camp that has taken in exclusively Syrian refugees since 2012. In Za’atari, the ITTF Foundation is active through its Nittaku Dream Building with Refugees project.

Even though there are several schools on the campgrounds, children and adults don’t have access to sport facilities. The ITTF Foundation trained trainers to offer table tennis lessons and is working to facilitate a relationship with local Jordanian table tennis clubs, enabling exchange and integration between the refugees and the Jordanian community.

One of the challenges was that, despite the open access to all, girls only attended the sessions once a female coach was hired. We arrived at that conclusion after having looked at our other projects and evaluating what made female participants feel safe, welcome, and motivated.

Building on this learning, another project partner FUDELA, in Ecuador, adapted to COVID and ensured women and girls are included by doing home visits and home sessions. The coaches go from home to home to do a family session for the children who were part of the programme. This approach has seen great response and success for the families who got more involved, compared to when only the children were attending sessions. Going to homes meant the family could play together; mothers generally responded positively to the opportunity to share a positive, joyful and lively experience with their children, in the safety of their shelter.

Dream Building with Refugees in Azraq

Our second project that works with displaced people in Jordan is based in Azraq. More than 60 % of Syrian refugee households, and 1 in 5 refugees in Jordan have a disability. Supported by the AGITOS Foundation, this project provides providing access to para sport for refugees living in the refugee camp in Azraq.

On the campgrounds, two table tennis sessions are run each week for persons with and without disabilities, with a specific emphasis on the participation of girls. The sessions are mixed and inclusive – the ball is passed between persons with and without disabilities, and girls and boys. The project aims to reach and evaluate the depth and type of impact on these target groups very consciously. As part of this, we identify barriers and find solutions to ensure inclusive access without the risk of discrimination.

 Integrated Community Development Initiative (ICODI) and mental health in Nakivale

The latest project seeking to help displaced populations is the Table Tennis for Mental Health and Integrated Community Development Initiative (ICODI) project, based in the Nakivale Refugee Settlement, Uganda. The two-year project aims to use table tennis as a tool to improve mental health among 600 adolescents and youth in and around Nakivale Refugee Settlement in Isingiro District-Southwestern Uganda. The project uses the buffering hypothesis that table tennis brings to conduct Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), raise awareness, and reduce stigma related to adolescent and youth mental illnesses.

The project also supports early detection of mental health issues as well as enhancing referral services for those with mental illnesses to access treatment. An important part of project design will centre on the project’s ability to reach a diversity of participants and resultant beneficiaries, with impact to be measured with the help of disaggregated data, with specific indicators to enhance gender-based disaggregation. The project is part of the latest cohort being supported by the ITTF Foundation through the Dream Building Fund 2021, powered by GSD.

Impactful implementation

By identifying, supporting, and scaling projects such as the ones above, the ITTF Foundation seeks to enhance the contribution of table tennis to key sustainable development goal targets aligned to the social and economic development of women and girls, especially in the context of displaced populations.

While effective and inclusive project designs are key to successful implementation, sustainable and impactful implementation will also depend on an evidence-based approach, strengthened with the help of context-specific indicators. Central to these approaches is the target groups, whose role at every stage of the project must be enhanced and institutionalised.



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.


Middle East
Latin America and the Caribbean
Table tennis
Sustainable Development Goals
10 – Reduced inequalities
5 - Gender equality
Target Group
People with Disabilities
Displaced people

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