After learning 80 percent of those who drowned during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami were women and children, British swimming instructor Christina Fonfé left her life in England behind to teach Sri Lankan women and girls basic swimming survival skills.

Christina founded the not-for-profit Sri Lanka Women’s Swimming Project in 2005 to give Sri Lankan women the skills they need to save their lives and those of their children.

She learned that restrictive social taboos, many focused on the belief that women shouldn’t be seen in swimsuits, meant that the majority of teen girls and women never ventured beyond knee depth in water, leaving them five times more likely than men to drown when natural disasters strike.

The Project puts a special emphasis on training female swimming teachers so they can multiply their impact by reaching more women across the country. All Christina’s instructors receive an internationally recognised qualification from the Swimming Teaching Association (STA).

They encourage and motivate, and every student receives one-on-one tutoring for their first lesson. After their course of swimming lessons each student will be issued with an “I can swim can you” certificate, this deems them pool water safe.

Since starting the Women’s Swimming Project, Fonfé and the teachers that she has trained have taught water safety and swimming to over 5,000 girls and women aged from 13 to 72 and increased acceptance of women swimmers in general. Lessons for women and girls over thirteen are paid for by the charity.

In 2015, Fonfé received a British Empire Medal for her work. In her acceptance speech, she said “It is down to the courage of the women to learn that gives me the ability to teach.”

> Women’s Swimming Project website

“I believe that knowing how to swim is a right, not a luxury… but convincing the male heads of households to let the teenage girls participate took more time than actually teaching them to swim did.”