Zahra Lari and Maggie Barrie for Women of Concern.Zahra Lari, Christina and Maggie Barrie for Women of Concern.Zahra Lari, Christina and Maggie Barrie for Women of Concern.

Sport and gender: The race for equality

Sport and gender: The race for equality
Story27 July 2022

The first international multi-sport event to award more medals to women than men, the Commonwealth Games, states equality as one of its three core values and thus sets a benchmark for how things could be with more women on the podium.

Taking place every four years and involving athletes from across the Commonwealth of Nations, this year the event is being hosted in Birmingham and will be “showcasing more female and para-athletes than ever before” (Ian Reid, CEO of Birmingham 2022).  
 
This is a particularly important and shining example of progress. However, as Sheila Robertson, author of the Canadian Journal for Women in Coaching, put it “At the higher levels of international sport, much has been written (and some lip service paid) about the importance of gender equality. But words without action are worthless, and sport remains far from a level playing field for millions of girls and women around the world.”

The world of sport has traditionally been dominated by men, both in terms of participation and governance. Even in a ‘developed’ nation like England, still more men do sport and physical activity than women in almost every age group.  
 
Yet the benefits of sport played at both an individual and team level are clear. Aside from speaking about the health benefits, sport is a cultural expression that can have a significant impact on removing the divisive lines of inequality and accelerating global progress towards gender equity, which is essential if we are to end extreme poverty.   

More than just a leisure activity

Nelson Mandela once said that “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.” 
 
In line with this sentiment, it’s important to acknowledge that sport can help overcome the barriers imposed by poverty, discrimination, and disadvantage through unification. Although factors such as the expense associated with specialist equipment can mean that it can be difficult for those in disadvantaged communities to participate in certain realms, there are cost-effective solutions to overcome this.  

At a grassroots community level sport has encouraged prosocial behaviour by challenging stereotypical notions of femininity and masculinity. Promoting self-confidence, leadership and teamwork it gives women and girls access to public spaces where they can grow these skills and is, therefore, a critical tool in their empowerment. It can also contribute to the elimination of gender-based violence by raising awareness through high-profile tactics, such as when FIFA supported the World Health Organization’s 16 days of activism campaign, as well as helping to deliver solutions through well-designed policies and programmes across multiple sectors, including sport itself
 
These factors mean that sport is increasingly becoming a catalyst for hope for those living in vulnerable communities, which is vital for them to thrive. Many local and national organisations are leading the way in this area and using sport as a tool for development. Notable examples include Skateistan, using skateboarding to empower girls in Afghanistan and Koun (meaning ‘To be’ in Arabic) which promotes peace through yoga classes for refugee women and marginalized communities in Lebanon. 

The trailblazers

Eniola Aluko playing for England. Photo: James Boyes
Eniola Aluko playing for England. Photo: James Boyes

Women athletes from the Global South who have lived experience of navigating the barriers to professional sport are role models who personify this notion of hope. Homing in on a few such trailblazers:  
 
Eniola Aluko from Nigeria is an Olympian and footballer who played for Chelsea FC. Off the pitch she is also an accomplished lawyer. She says, “sport gives you real-life lessons that make you bulletproof.” 
 
Maggie Barrie is Sierra Leone’s fastest female runner to represent the country at the Olympics. During the 2020 Tokyo Games, she was eliminated in the second round of the one hundred metres but has been celebrated for her resilience and determination. In a touching message to fans, she stated: “It hurts not to make it to the next round. But I got a season-best and gave everything I had in my whole body and soul in that race.” 
 
Zahra Lari is the first Emirati figure skater from the UAE to compete internationally, as well as the first figure skater to compete in a hijab, making her an inspiration to both Arab and Muslim women worldwide. She declares “with my story, I feel I have broken ground for women.”

Maggie Barrie from a 2018 NCAA meet.
Maggie Barrie from a 2018 NCAA meet.

An integrated approach to embedding sport and play

As these inspiring athletes have shown sport truly can make dreams a reality. However, to enact widespread, long-term change it needs to be part of a broader effort and integrated with other development approaches and programming.  
 
Recognising that “many actors in the sport ecosystem are making significant strides to advance gender equality. However, until now, these initiatives have been working in relative isolation, leading to missed opportunities of learning and scaling the best practices”, UN Women are leading the way for collaboration via their Sport for Generation Equality Initiative. 
 
One pillar of this is working to integrate sports with education programmes. The way that physical education is taught in schools is highly gender divided and even at primary school age boys and girls are separated on sports days. This has a knock-on effect by increasing the divide between men and women later in life, for example as fewer women know about the rules of mainstream sports this encourages 'lad' culture. For many women even the term ‘sport’ could have negative connections, stressing the importance of reframing what it means to be active.

Mwanza Primary School whose Skillz Programme initiative has been implemented with the help of Concern. Photo: Jason Kennedy
Mwanza Primary School whose Skillz Programme initiative has been implemented with the help of Concern. Photo: Jason Kennedy

Concern Worldwide adopts a localised approach working with local partners to exchange ideas and capacities to deliver programmes in a holistic way. Examples of collaborative programmes intertwining sport and play with other methods to empower girls include the Skillz programme in Malawi. This started at Mwanza Primary School in 2017 using football to teach life skills, gender equality, hygiene skills and life goals to the students. Concern provides the coaching training for and supplies the footballs for implementation. 
 
One student, Christina Kamangira who is 15 years old said “I love being part of the Skillz Programme. I have learnt about what I love – cooking, playing and lots more. I have learnt a lot of things that I did not know, including how to take care of myself during menstruation.” 

Community Dialogues bring together all members of the community to discuss ways to improve gender equality and tackle issues including gender-based violence. As part of the sessions community members are encouraged to roll play actions that promote gender equality. Photo: Michael Duff/Concern Worldwide
Community Dialogues bring together all members of the community to discuss ways to improve gender equality and tackle issues including gender-based violence. As part of the sessions community members are encouraged to roll play actions that promote gender equality. Photo: Michael Duff/Concern Worldwide

What about the private sector?

Just as we consider the work of NGOs, equality in sport is also deemed important enough to be embraced by the private sector, who hold the key to influencing sports culture and re-directing investments accordingly. It’s not just ethically right, it’s savvy business and is becoming increasingly valued by big name corporates who have seen the economic return.  
 
Sportswear brands have stepped up. Last year Adidas launched Stay in Play, a line of period-proof activewear and recently a new Impossible is Nothing campaign, featuring high-profile women including Brazilian volleyball star Tifanny Abreu, the first trans woman to play in Brazil’s Superliga. The brand is also funding a series of grassroots initiatives to improve sports participation among women and underrepresented groups.  
 
Nike, the largest women’s athletic brand in the world at over $8.5 billion has run countless inclusive marketing campaigns aimed at empowering women to partake in sport. This has helped push the brand’s women’s business profits up 22% last year.

Sprinting to the finish line

As campaigns like these continue to filter into mainstream media and more women and girls are given the opportunity to participate through integrated programmes, the future for women in sport looks bright. 
 
The integration of sports as a tool for development and equality is rising and the local initiatives and female athletes from developing nations we have explored in this piece represent only the tip of the iceberg and should inspire us all to do more.  
 
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