5 lessons learned about empowering girls through sports

A girls soccer team with their coach in Niger. Sports have a potential to facilitate social change. Photo by: Association Sportive Les Volcans / CC BY-NC

What impact will playing sports have on the lives of girls and women?

There have been studies and anecdotal evidence to show that not only can it help improve girls and women’s health and personal growth, but it can also promote gender equality on and off the field. A number of nongovernmental organizations have in fact implemented programs that use physical activity and play as an entry point for development.

At last month’s Girl Power in Play Symposium held in Ottawa, Canada, some of these NGOs shared the lessons they’ve learned implementing such programs. From the discussion emerged a strong consensus around forming more and different types of partnerships to leverage the potential of sports and facilitate social change on a larger scale.

Girls in sport: More and better research needed to level the playing field

The movement to use sports as a catalyst for improving the lives of girls and women is growing, but what's the evidence that supports the various benefits and uses of sports? And what kind of additional research is needed to help development professionals design smarter programs?

Here are five key takeaways:

1. Each program is unique.

Participants agreed that sports programs should be deeply rooted in the local context, and therefore should not be replicated without being adapted.

“You can’t take one program and drop it into another country,” said Emma Highwood, head of women’s football at the Football Federation Australia. “You’ve got to take the principles, and then be willing to adjust that over a period of time.”

Highwood explained that FFA used surveys to understand what prevented girls from playing football. They found that while some girls were comfortable playing with boys, others preferred a girls-only environment, which led FFA to adjust their programming.

“We decided to give girls more choices,” she said.

Another factor than can lead to significant differences in the way programs are designed is the level of training provided to beneficiaries. While some programs use sport and play merely as a tool to achieve development goals, others place their primary focus on training athletes. While both types of programs have their own benefits, Soccer Without Borders Co-founder and Executive Director Mary McVeigh said teaching sports skills first allowed her organization to keep girls involved over the years, even though they might develop other interests while growing up.

“Girls stay in our programs because they see themselves getting better,” she said.

2. Include local communities in the fight against gender inequality.

Whether programs focus on health, personal development or shifting gender norms, involving local communities in the process is crucial to achieve a higher impact.

Plan Canada is implementing a two-year, multifaceted program in Tanzania to improve gender equality in an area where there is a high rate of female genital mutilation, child marriage and maternal mortality. The program works with male football players and coaches to change gender norms.

“The value of girls can shift or change by working not just with girls, but with men and boys who surround girls, using football for social norm change,” said Sarah Hendriks, global gender adviser at Plan International. The organization is also partnering with local authorities to strengthen child protection systems. By using existing structures such as football clubs, schools and legal mechanisms, the program aims at ensuring community ownership and sustainability.

Fatuma Adan, who founded and heads the Horn of Africa Initiative in northern Kenya, said starting a female football program in an area where girls had never touched a ball required her to spend countless hours dialoguing with parents to convince them to let their children play. She also had to negotiate with religious authorities to bring imams to stop preaching against female sports, and agree on a suitable football uniform.

3. Partnerships are essential.

A key message taken from the conference was the need to need to create more partnerships for research and implementation.

Given that sports can play a role in such a wide variety of development areas, implementing organizations can partner with NGOs that have expertise in different sectors to maximize their impact. And since physical activity and sports are not represented in the sustainable development goals, partnerships may become essential to secure funding and draw attention to the role sports can play in reaching SDGs.

One area that was identified as holding potential for increased partnerships is nutrition. Dominic Schofield, director at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, told Devex that sports programs could be a great entry point for interventions that target girls and young women.

“Adolescent girls are at the pivot of breaking the cycle of poverty and of malnutrition, and ironically they’re the most difficult to reach,” he pointed out. “Public channels of delivery haven’t been effective in reaching them at large scale, and we need to look at other channels to do that.”

4. Sports programs can influence change at a greater level.

Partnerships are also essential to bring grass-roots sports programs to the next level and influence change on a larger scale. By connecting with the football federation of Nicaragua and the ministry of education, Soccer Without Borders was able to bring more attention to female football and organize activities that benefited from high visibility. They helped bring female players from the U.S. to play games with local teams in order to enable young players to have role models, as women’s football is still underdeveloped in the country.

Development organizations also have a role to play in influencing policy through advocacy.

“I can’t overemphasize the importance of having infrastructure in place at the national and regional level that serves to monitor and make more likely that these words are going to go into action,” said Carole Oglesby, co-chair of the International Working Group on Women and Sports, when discussing mechanisms such as the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, or the UNESCO Charter of Physical Education and Sport.

Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said international sports organizations such as the International Olympic Committee or FIFA should be pressured to uphold gender equality principles that are included in their charters, and bring member countries to apply these principles.

5. Plan for the road ahead.

Several participants reported experiencing similar challenges while trying to grow their programs, such as finding female coaches and role models for young girls in regions where female sports are unpopular. FFA’s Highwood said this was the case in Australia as well. She wants to see more female football ambassadors, and believes the next step for FFA is to help improve the visibility of the sport by leading local media to increase their coverage of games.

Grass-roots programs that have been implemented for several years are running into different types of roadblocks. McVeigh from Soccer Without Borders said that after successfully training local football players, the team is now faced with a lack of opponents to play against. The organization is now trying to build a league to take the movement further.

“The girls are thirsting for competition,” she said. What’s more, with girls who have been involved in the program now graduating from high school, McVeigh sees a need for new types of programs that would help beneficiaries transfer their skills to adult life.

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About the author

  • Flavie Halais

    Flavie Halais is a contributor based in Montreal who covers cities and international social issues. In 2013-2014, Flavie was an Aga Khan Foundation Canada International Fellow, reporting for Nation Media Group in Nairobi, Kenya. She’s also reported from Rwanda, Brazil and Colombia.