Katie Rock on empowering girls through sports

A women's soccer team huddle with their coach in Niger. Photo by: AS Les Volcans / CC BY-NC

EDITOR’S NOTE: By playing sports, girls can lead healthier and more productive lives. However, very rarely do girls in the developing world do sport, notes Katie Rock, a human rights attorney, in a blog for the Council on Foreign Relations. Understanding the barriers to participation in sport and supporting organizations that consider local contexts will help more girls enjoy the many benefits that sport has to offer.

The fact that girls in developing countries face unique hardships is well understood. These girls frequently have less access to education than boys, leading to illiteracy and fewer work opportunities. Adolescent pregnancy is commonplace in the developing world, where the vast majority of teen pregnancies occur and maternal mortality is a leading cause of death for teen women. Three-fourths of global teen HIV cases are among females, and cervical and other cancers are on the rise in developing countries. Abuse is another persistent issue, with one in three females worldwide having been physically or sexually abused.

However, there is a high-impact — but often overlooked — opportunity to improve girls’ lives and prospects: sport. As detailed in a compilation of research by the Women’s Sports Foundation, sport has a profound effect on girls in virtually all aspects of life. Indeed, girls who play sports reach higher levels of education and do better at school. They are less likely to develop breast cancer and other chronic diseases, become pregnant in adolescence, engage in high-risk sexual behavior, or stay in an abusive relationship.

Yet, in the developing world where girls most need these benefits, they rarely do sport. And while the idea of sport as a solution may seem simple, increasing girls’ participation is far from it, with the barriers to sport heavily influenced by local political, economic, and social contexts. Consequently, it is imperative to understand these barriers in order to implement sport programs that garner local support.

Working with the Pan American Health Organization from 2010 to 2012, I investigated why girls in Nicaragua — where girls’ conditions are among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere — rarely do sport. Interestingly, we found that there are few organized sports activities for girls or boys in Nicaragua; yet, boys’ participation rates are much higher than those of the girls.

We discovered two primary (and related) barriers to girls’ sport that shed light on this situation. First, girls explained that there are no places for them to play; the public fields in their neighborhoods are generally understood to be “un lugar para los hombres” — a place for the men. The few girls who had tried to play in those places reported being told to leave, or harassed. The streets, where most sport is actually played in Nicaragua, were no better. While it is accepted — and even expected — for boys to play unsupervised in the streets, this is viewed as odd or unsafe for girls.

Exploring this issue further, we asked girls where they would prefer to do sport. Overwhelmingly, they responded that they would prefer to play in their schools, which were generally safe spaces where girls already felt comfortable.

The second primary barrier was the lack of parental permission to do sport. Girls explained that their parents worried about their safety outside the home, thinking they might be assaulted or “get into problems” (meaning, for example, that they would skip practice to spend time with boys and risk getting pregnant). Some parents also needed their daughters in the home, or simply did not believe sport should be a priority.

On further exploration, we found that parents in Nicaragua are not necessarily against sport or letting their daughters leave the home. However, they are strongly protective. They will allow their daughters to leave home, so long as there is a transfer of “protection” to someone else they trust. Again, school came to the forefront as an acceptable place for girls.

Through these findings, we better understood why, despite the similar lack of organized sporting activities, boys still do sport in high numbers and girls do not. Boys do not require a designated activity, setting, and coach; they can simply play in the neighborhood with friends. However, the streets are not an option for girls; when there are no organized sporting activities, it is the same as no opportunities at all.

To increase girls’ participation in sports in Nicaragua, supporters must address the barriers experienced uniquely by girls. This means increasing organized activities for girls (and dedicating funding to doing so), ensuring these activities take place in a safe space, and establishing trust between coaches and parents. Activyst, the start-up I have been building, generates funding for organizations offering organized sporting activities for girls worldwide. Our first non-profit partner, Soccer Without Borders in Nicaragua, has worked to understand and address these local barriers, forming trust with parents and making safe spaces and schools centerpieces of the program. Their own programs now reach 130 girls, and they reach 1,200 more through outreach in gym classes at local schools.

Sport can help girls live healthier, safer, and more productive lives. With further understanding of the barriers in other regions, and the support of organizations creating programs that take account of local contexts, we can enable more girls worldwide to reap the many benefits sport has to offer.

Edited for style and republished with permission from the Council on Foreign Relations. Read the original article.

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