Girls play football in Niger. Sports can be a powerful tool for change — they can provide girls a safe space and can serve as a powerful platform for health information and education. Photo by: Association Sportive Les Volcans / CC BY-NC

We’ve all heard stories of professional athletes who have defied the odds to keep playing the sport they love. Take Maria Toor Pakay who grew up in South Waziristan, Pakistan, where playing squash, or any sport, was for boys only; but Maria couldn’t be kept off the court. She pretended to be a boy in order to keep playing and today is Pakistan’s number one squash player.

Maria refused to let society restrict her, and instead, she showed us all what girls can do. Now she is championing change through a foundation that helps girls access education and sport — contributing to a stronger, more just Pakistan.

With every game, female athletes like Maria challenge gender norms and stereotypes in their communities and beyond — whether it’s going to school, pursuing a career or accessing the health care they want and need. Sport programs provide a safe space where girls, many of whom live in poverty, can learn, grow and prosper. What’s more, sport programs can serve as a powerful platform for health information and education, teaching them the skills and strategies they need to reduce risk and create positive changes in their lives, particularly related to sexual and reproductive health.

In a few months, we will have a new global development agenda, the sustainable development goals — a universal set of goals and targets that all 193 U.N. member states will be expected to use to frame their agendas and political policies over the next 15 years. As a global development community, we will be tasked with putting theory into practice. One underexamined strategy for driving development is investing in girls and women and recognizing sport as a powerful tool for change.

When girls play, they are healthier physically, mentally and economically. Girls who play sport build self-confidence and leadership skills that help them thrive on and off the field. That’s why this week, global athletes and advocates are gathering in Ottawa for the Girl Power in Play Symposium, during the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada, to ensure that girls everywhere have a chance to get in the game — and ultimately, build a healthy, prosperous and sustainable future for themselves, their families and society writ large.

Sport programs across the world are helping girls and women reach their full potential. In South Africa, Girls and Football is working with communities with high levels of HIV, teen pregnancy, rape and gender-based violence. The program uses football as an opportunity to teach girls life skills and share health information. They’ve helped more than 2,000 girls and women understand their rights, make healthy choices, stand up to violence and contribute to their economies.

In Afghanistan, Skateistan encourages youth to attend their skateboarding lessons, and stay on for an education. Their program uses fine art and multimedia to teach subjects ranging from geography to hygiene. Many of the girls who attend go on to become Skateistan Youth Leaders, who help plan lessons, organize events and become positive role models for their peers. These programs are helping youth thrive in post-conflict communities. Other organizations, like Right to Play, work within existing education systems to train teachers to incorporate play into their lessons so that children are engaged and excited to learn.

Similarly, in Zimbabwe, Grassroot Soccer works with orphaned and disadvantaged girls and boys in schools in Bulawayo and Harare. The program uses football to raise awareness about two major health threats in their communities: HIV and gender-based violence. Grassroot Soccer provides kids with a space — on and off the field — to learn, ask questions and talk openly about these issues with their peers. To date, more than 41,000 have graduated from the program — that’s 41,000 young people who are now better educated about HIV, stigma and discrimination, and know how to prevent all three.

One thing these programs have in common is that by helping girls find their voice, learn to persevere through adversity, gain a sense of community and test out their leadership skills, they help girls take greater control over other aspects of their lives. In other words, girls are able to translate their skills on the field to their lives off the field.

While these and many other organizations are doing incredible work in the sport arena, national governments, international organizations, donors and the private sector need to get in the game as well.

Sport programs need to be incorporated into strategies to improve the health and well-being of women and girls, to address gender inequality and to help cultivate the skills of tomorrow’s leaders in politics and the marketplace. Funding for girls’ sport programs must increase and more research is needed on the impact of girls’ involvement in sport. When we invest in girls, everybody wins.

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About the authors

  • Katja Iversen

    Katja Iversen is the president/CEO of Women Deliver. She is an internationally recognized expert on development, advocacy, and communications, has more than 25 years of experience working in NGOs, corporates, and United Nation agencies. Previously, she held the position as chief of strategic communication and public advocacy with UNICEF, a position she came to after almost six years of leading the team responsible for advocacy and communication on reproductive health with UNFPA.
  • Maria Bobenrieth

    Maria Bobenrieth is the executive director of Women Win, where she oversees global operations, programs, partnerships and strategic development. Maria has a strong professional and personal background in international business and community development. Born in Chile and raised and educated in the U.S., Maria has lived in the Netherlands since 2001.

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