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

By Flavie Halais 08 July 2015

A girl passes a basketball during a training session in Mogadishu, Somalia. Can sports be used as a catalyst for improving the lives of girls and women? Photo by: Tobin Jones / AU UN IST / AMISOM

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?

Researchers and practitioners who gathered at the Girl Power in Play Symposium, held last month in Ottawa, Canada, weighed in on how we can help build a better case for the role sports can play in the post-2015 agenda.

1. We need more evidence …

Sure, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence and personal stories of achievement that point out to some obvious benefits of sports for girls and women, but the research remains sparse.

“We have some common sense that tells us that this is leading to positive change, but we need the evidence,” Susan Ngongi, UNICEF country representative in Ghana, said.

Much of the current evidence comes from monitoring and evaluation, and most of it is output-based. According to Martha Brady, a senior associate at Population Council, there is a lack of data coming from low- and middle-income countries, notably national data sets, and more generally a lack of high-standard data such as randomized controlled trials. More nuanced research is also needed to demonstrate the circumstances under which sports programs can work best.

2. … but what we already know points to tangible benefits.

“The good news is, there is a lot of good evidence on some aspects around sports, and it’s very strong,” Brady said.

Existing research has revealed that well-designed programs have clear health benefits; they contribute to the reduction of several health issues that will become prevalent in the developing world in the next few years, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Sport has also been proven to increase mental health and lower depression, a leading cause of poor health among adolescent girls.

Brady said there is a strong correlation between sports and educational and professional success — although causation has not yet been proven. Lastly, sport can have positive therapeutic effects on people suffering from various forms of trauma.

3. Sport is inextricably tied to value systems.

That the ability for girls to participate in sports is tied to cultural norms and values should not be surprising.

However, extensive surveys conducted by Plan Canada have provided more details about the connection between sports and the way girls are perceived by society. Sarah Hendricks of Plan Canada said the study revealed a strong correlation between how girls are valued and sports participation, educational opportunities, as well as the ability to take charge of their future — avoiding early pregnancy, for example.

While gender stereotypes that viewed girls as being less capable as boys clearly contributed to preventing girls from playing sports, girls experienced a clear positive connection between the ability to partake in sports and class participation. Surprisingly, boys often had a different perception of gender inequality in sports, claiming girls participated equally.

“How girls are valued remains at the heart of how we drive our change and what motivates us in terms of understanding girls’ lives and realities,” Hendricks said.

4. Context is key.

Plan Canada’s study revealed vast discrepancies between the experiences of gender inequality reported by girls across and within countries, which suggests that no generalities can be made about the way sports programs should be designed. The experience of violence, for instance, was prevalent in some places and virtually absent in others.

When Lyndsay Hayhurst, from the University of British Columbia, studied a program in Nicaragua that uses football to address issues linked with sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence, participants mentioned specific and localized factors that prevented them from playing, such as the inability to head to the field due to environmental hazards caused by global warming, or cultural norms forcing them to stay home. Because the right to play is so tightly connected to other factors, sports programs should not be designed to work in isolation.

“The structural inequalities that were evident in every study I conducted are very difficult to address with sport. I’m talking about poverty, or traditional divisions of labor. It’s fine if a girl knows her rights, but if she can’t have someone help her enforce them, it doesn’t really change the ways she’s being marginalized in the first place,” she warned.

5. Building evidence.

While participants agreed that more research is needed to understand how sports programs can be improved, many feared they would not be able to fund rigorous impact evaluations.

But Brady said RCTs were not necessarily needed; what counts is the ability for a program to be tweaked to reach desirable outcomes, making sure to collect baseline information before the program is started. She called for organizations to develop partnerships early on with research institutes not only to build their capacity to collect data, but also to make sure the project is designed in a way that will make collecting data easier.

“It’s all about smart design,” she pointed out.

Project implementers should also be mindful of how they choose to present their projects to funders, and what type of research they need to support that rationale, since sport can serve as an entry point to address many development issues. Framing a project as part of a “right to play” agenda is different from focusing on gender-based violence, for instance. During a separate session, Sarah Murray from Women Win said organizations should explore ways to connect their monitoring and evaluation efforts and try to drive a collective impact strategy, perhaps through a common database.

Better research will not only help make a case for sports-centered programming, but also enable project implementers to increase their range of action.

“We need to experiment with new models and new venues and implement a whole range of different kinds of sport programs,” Brady said.

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About the author

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Flavie Halaisflaviehalais

Flavie Halais is a freelance journalist 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.


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