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Spreading the Spirit of Women’s Olympic Achievements

The potential for women in sports is greater than ever, but many around the world never get to participate. As Rio 2016 kicks off, it’s a good time to re-energize efforts to get girls playing, writes the Population Council’s Martha Brady.

Written by Martha Brady Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Schoolgirls play soccer in Soweto, South Africa. “Sports can be a simple yet radical tool in service to the broader women’s rights agenda,” writes Martha Brady of the Population Council. AP/Hassan Ammar

Sports can be a transformative force for girls and women around the globe. As we prepare to cheer on female athletes during the Rio 2016 Games, let’s consider the extraordinary women from countries where women’s sports receive little attention and few resources, and take a page from the U.S. women’s sports playbook.

American women’s sports have taken off since the landmark Title IX legislation of 1972 mandating gender equality in U.S. educational institutions. It would have been hard to anticipate what a revolutionary impact that law would have on women’s athletics.

Forty-four years later, because of court-ordered spending and investment in programs for girls in educational institutions, women in the U.S. have been stepping onto playing fields of every kind, from kindergarten through university and beyond, in numbers approaching those of men. Women’s professional leagues are attracting growing audiences and sponsorship. And girls nationwide are more confident and more engaged, and likely healthier for it.

Similar legislation could have the same kinds of benefits for girls and women in low- and middle-income countries around the world. Global development studies are unanimous that meeting the health and empowerment needs of the more than 500 million adolescent girls aged 10 to 19 in such countries is key to the economic and political future; only by engaging the energies and talents of all of its population can a country hope to reach its economic potential.

Sports can be a simple yet radical tool in service to the broader women’s rights agenda. Participating in sports challenges the script of what constitutes acceptable female behavior. Girls learn about and gain a greater appreciation of their bodies and their rights. They see new capacities and skills in themselves. They have more visibility in the public arena and, importantly, they get real-time, real-life experience of leadership – in teamwork with peers and mentors; as coaches, captains and referees; and in resolving conflicts within their teams and with other teams – perhaps from different classes, races or religions. In the U.S., female athletes have emerged as outspoken leaders in the fight for gender pay equality.

Women’s potential in sports isn’t universally recognized yet, to put it mildly. Opponents claim that girls are less able and less interested in athletic pursuits than boys, so why offer them? Critics of Title IX made the same argument decades ago, but thankfully the courts rejected it, recognizing that interest in something is closely linked to its availability. The “Field of Dreams” theory of equality – “If you build it, they will come” – seems to be working. Girls and women are coming to sports in record numbers.

Two decades ago, I convened the first-ever meeting between global health practitioners and women’s sports advocates. We shared ideas and evidence about what works. We discussed strategy. And since that time, many of us have been working on programs to improve the health and well-being of girls and women around the globe. From early work to establish a girls’ team in what was the male-only Mathare Youth Sports Association in Kenya, to creating programs where girls can play safely, to promoting the innovative empowerment curriculum of Grassroot Soccer (GRS) for girls in South Africa, we are moving the ball down the field for women and girls.

I recall being told some years ago that in Egypt girls could not do sports because they had to be modestly dressed and stay mostly at home. But in a Cairo museum I had seen ancient Egyptian carvings of women swimmers, archers and equestriennes, so I knew we could build on precedent. A few years later, we launched Ishraq, [Arabic for sunrise] an innovative second-chance education program for girls, with sports days and table tennis carefully and respectfully embedded into the program.

Programs such as these are pushing boundaries worldwide, a little at a time. We must seize the moment and test various combinations of program models and venues, integrating girls’ sports into larger efforts, and collecting impact data to inform and persuade decision-makers – from village elders to development organizations to national governments.

We can cite findings from the U.S. and elsewhere showing the physical and mental health benefits of sport. U.S. female high school athletes have greater self-confidence and are more positive about their bodies than non-athletes, and have lower rates of smoking, depression and drug use. Physical activity and sports can lower rates of heart disease, osteoporosis and obesity – chronic diseases of increasing significance in many countries. And studies have shown clear associations between participating in sports and educational outcomes, leadership and improved economic prospects.

The goal is to begin, not to produce instant champions. Luck, financing and perseverance in such efforts worldwide could mean women Olympians will face growing competition in coming years as female athletes increase in numbers around the globe. And no matter who takes home the medals then, women worldwide will be the winners.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Women & Girls Hub.

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