The Untapped Potential of Sport to Accelerate Global Progress towards Gender Equity

By Bobenrieth, Maria | UN Chronicle, September 2016 | Go to article overview

The Untapped Potential of Sport to Accelerate Global Progress towards Gender Equity


Bobenrieth, Maria, UN Chronicle


We are at a point in history where it is possible to find gender-equitable spaces in the world. The Parliament of Rwanda. A classroom in Iceland. Perhaps your local coffee shop. Sport, however, is not one of those spaces. It is, arguably, one of the last frontiers of gender equity. It is the place where discrimination against women and male domination are broadly considered reasonable and acceptable, despite the right to sport being enshrined in international conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. A girl in Mumbai, India, is still most often not welcome to step up to bat at the local cricket ground. Even in the most visible sporting environments, arcane attitudes and practices persist. This is evidenced by the fact that less than 1 per cent of voting members of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the governing body of the world's most popular sport, are women.

It is precisely this stark gender imbalance that makes sport a prime lever to accelerate extreme changes in gender equity globally. The strategy of using sport to improve gender outcomes is transgressive and unlikely. History shows us, however, that when we make sporting space equitable, what becomes possible for girls and women expands exponentially.

In 1972, the United States enacted a law known as Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, which made discrimination on the basis of sex illegal for any institution receiving federal funding. One of the most significant implications of the law was the mandate to fund men's and women's sport programmes equally. Over 40 years later, Title IX has been credited with reducing the gap in girls' sport participation in the United States from 1 in 27 to 1 in 3.

The impact of Title IX transcends the playing field. Recent research suggests that sport participation for girls has a causal effect on their social lives as adults. (1) Phoebe Clarke and Ian Ayres of Yale Law School write in the Journal of Socio-Economics that athletic competitions "create forums for individual success," and this appetite for achievement appears to last well into adulthood. Their research showed that sport made women "physically and mentally stronger and promoted emotional development." In that way, they add, "sports participation fosters independence and initiative." (2)

Women Win is an international non-governmental organization (NGO) that uses sport as a strategy to empower adolescent girls to achieve their rights. Our work is based on the premise that sport has a unique ability to build girls' leadership skills and address limiting gender norms at the community level. Since 2007, we have positively impacted the lives of over 1.75 million girls to address the most pressing issues of adolescence through sport, helping them access sexual and reproductive health and rights, address gender-based violence and achieve economic empowerment.

At Women Win, we see considerable challenges within the field of sport with regard to Sustainable Development Goal 5, to "achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls." At the same time, however, we see significant potential, if leveraged well, for sport to have a positive impact on global efforts to achieve this Goal.

Evidence from partner programmes we support reveals precisely how sport participation can influence specific targets for Goal 5.

Target 5.2: Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.

Gender-based violence is pervasive and crippling for young women in countries around the world, and adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable. According to a 2005 report by the United Nations Population Fund, almost 50 per cent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 15 years of age. …

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