Sport can be a means of empowering women and girls globally

As the FIFA Women’s World Cup ends in France, and as much has been said on female athletes and gender discrimination in football, one should focus on how sport can be used to improve girls’ women’s daily lives all over the world.

The emancipation of boys and men through sport has been the subject of numerous social science works and was at the heart of various policies, such as urban policies in Western countries and sport seen as a development tool in some countries in the South. And when political objectives are gender-neutral, the reality is biased in favor of the masculine, and the problems faced by girls in accessing sports programs and facilities are minimized or even denied.

Sport, because it is still, from the earliest age, largely a social and political construction of the body, and of a stereotyped masculinity, reveals a mirror image, perpetuating a standardized ideal of feminity. Due to the sacrosanct biological sense, the “masculine” and “feminine” are based on a binary vision of men and women, with expectations of different, complementary social roles which are fixed and thus closed to other possibilities. Mainstream representations of sport contribute to this.

Improve gender equality in, but also through, sport

However, schemes which aim at giving girls and women of all ages access to sport, and which also rely on this to encourage them to take their full place in society are becoming more numerous, and not only in Western countries. Many good examples deserve to be brought to light, as they have developed and put into practice the virtues of sport in the service of common good. They show a multitude of issues, by signing up to larger educational, economic, social or community schemes, or by strengthening and giving legitimacy to these schemes; by relying on local or international partners, on ministers or national agencies, or on global sports organizations (FIFA, UEFA, IOC, etc.); by taking place in a rich country or in a poor nation or region; by addressing dozens of people or by going on to become large scale developments.

“Girl Power” in Egypt, which is part of the “Global Sports Mentoring Program” (Royalty-free image)

Whether it is “simply” about being able to do a physical activity in a safe, inclusive setting; regaining confidence through and in one’s body; rebuilding identity after a forced marriage or rape; improving well-being and health; combating poverty, marginalization, exclusion, and the invisibility of women; finding new determination to get a job and construct a professional network; making a greater commitment to other people and the community; promoting mutual respect; proving that girls and women are capable of leadership… sport demonstrates that it is a universal language which is inspiring and capable of transcending frontiers, cultures, beliefs and physical differences.

Of course, sport cannot do everything. It is not a magic formula for changing society and social gender relationships, for promoting sustainability, development, peace, reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual understanding, or for overcoming ignorance, and overturning patriarchal social structures. However, it can be grasped and used, from childhood and throughout the whole of life, as a tool for the empowerment of women and girls (or, to put it another way, as a means for them to participate in an active, voluntary, independent way in a common world ), of gender equality (which is the United Nations’ fifth sustainable development goal), and of freedom and individual and collective confidence. Building a more egalitarian society presupposes the promotion of effective mechanisms for progress and the multiplication of spaces for meeting and talking together.

Many inspiring experiments all over the world

International benchmark gives us a broader perspective. We can focus here on three virtuous examples. The “Global Sports Mentoring Program”, implemented in 2012 by US Department of state in many countries, helps underprivileged girls to go out of the home and to build their own future. Sport facilitates human relationships in collective activities in order for teenagers to find their identity, construct a life project and learn social skills.

“Tackle Africa” in Burkina Faso (Royalty-free image)

In Burkina Faso, the British “Tackle Africa” program helps young girls and boys between the ages of 10 and 20 with the aim of informing them and preventing health problems. Sexually transmitted diseases (HIV and others) are particularly targeted, along with access to contraception and abortion, and the fight against sexual violence. Games of football, often mixed, are used as a chance to meet and talk in a friendly way. The male and female coaches who are chosen are leading teachers in their communities. They are trained to use discussions about the game, interactions and reactions to focus on health messages which the young people can pass on in their sports club and community. Sport facilitates contact and makes it easier for young people to open up and talk about personal subjects, and to break certain taboos.

“Magic Bus” in India (Royalty-free image)

In India, the “Magis Bus” scheme aims at working closely with communities, families and local institutions, in such a way as to enable children and teenagers to complete their education in addition to school and improve their chance of getting a paid job. It is also a means of avoiding forced marriage and child labour, and many of the young people involved become the first in their families to earn a salary. By developing technical skills alongside human, emotional and social skills, the “Magic Bus” creates a link with parents to limit early school leaving and to follow the young people until they find a stable job.

Sport helps to build a “learning planet”

Sport is therefore a potential lever for innovation, still underused. The conditions for this success, including adaptation to the local or national context, can be identifiable and the motive forces can be duplicated. There are also a number of obstacles and examples of resistance. But it is by learning about positive experiences, from all over the world, and aimed at very varied publics in terms of origin, religion, age, family situation, living environment, experience and identity, and contexts (peace, war, etc.) that we can use our collective intelligence to ensure that what has been achieved lasts, to learn from what works and build international cooperation schemes within the context of a “learning planet”.

By fighting gender inequality, combating self-criticism and valuing and promoting, without essentialism, the talents and potential of the women and girls by doing sport, training or sports management, many programs invite the articulation of redistribution and recognition issues as theorized by the philosopher Nancy Fraser, needed to establish an egalitarian society, where each man or woman can avail themselves of a recognized status.

Although they are targeting women and being deliberately gender-conscious, there is no paradox in the fact that the schemes have a universal aim, since they involve opening up possibilities for all men and all women, because sport makes it possible to construct or reconstruct not just one or several forms of femininity, but more than that: a form of humanity. They also show the capacity of parts of the population that are the victims of stereotypes and violence to combat existing social structures for their own emancipation.

Marie-Cécile Naves has just published the following book: “Sport as a means of empowering women and girls all over the world”, Sport and Citizenship, with the support of Fondation CHANEL, 2019.

Political scientist (PhD), Director of the Gender and Geopolitics Observatory, IRIS, www.mariececilenaves.com

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