When Women without Borders (WwB) learned that a South Indian woman’s chance of survival during the 2004 tsunami was four times lower than that of her male counterpart, it piloted a swimming programme for girls and women to emphasise the importance of engaging females in physical education, and to highlight sport as a tool for increasing self-confidence and competence.
Shortly after the devastating 2004 tsunami struck South India, an OXFAM research study estimated that around eighty per cent of all fatalities had been female. Women and children in coastal regions were particularly affected. Since they are usually expected to stay at home, many lacked the physical ability and confidence to give them a fighting chance. Women tend also to be discouraged from learning how to swim, and they generally fear going near the ocean. Confidence and physical experience were key factors preventing them from finding refuge in trees, on roofs, or on higher ground.
When Women without Borders (WwB) learned that chances of survival had been determined by social restrictions on women, it responded by cooperating with the Austrian Swimming Association, the Austrian Life Guard Foundation, and the Austrian Youth Red Cross to conceptualise the ‘Swimming into the Future!’ programme. With the support of the Sports Division of the Austrian Federal Chancellery, WwB organised swimming lessons for girls and young women in the city of Chennai and the coastal village of Mamallapuram. In February 2006, Elke Reicht, Friederike Seidl, Hedwig Weirer, and Eva Zagorz—the dedicated team of Austrian lifeguards—trained 75 individuals. As one of the trainers playfully remarked, ‘We will make Olympic swimmers of them all!’
Beyond providing the female youth with a potentially lifesaving skill, the courses also encouraged their self-confidence and self-worth. In the course of the programme, 53 girls from Chennai between the ages of 6 and 14 as well as 22 women from Mamallapuram learned how to swim. With a view to the future, 14 women completed the professional swimming instructor course. Initial difficulties with respect to the unacquainted swimwear were swiftly resolved by mobilising all available tailors for a nightshift to produce more modest attire.
Owing to the great success of the programme, WwB was able to secure additional funding for its first ever film, entitled ‘Different Strokes’. When the trainings caught the eye of the regional press and local government, ‘Swimming into the Future!’ received additional support from the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu. The film was premiered in the Austrian Embassy in New Delhi (with an introduction by Ambassador Dr. Jutta Stefan-Bastl) and featured during the UN press conference ‘Sports for Development and Peace’ in Vienna.