Triumph of Women and Sport
The benefits are obvious to those working in the field.
“Think of all the benefits young men derive from sports—young women get the same effect,” says Olympian basketball gold medalist Jennifer Azzi, who—through her connection to the NBA and WNBA—has run basketball clinics in South Africa, Tanzania, and Abu Dhabi. “The girls feel validated that they can play sports. They are so excited.”
“You can see a personality shift,” says Ayub, who wrote a book about her experience with girls from Afghanistan called The Kabul Girls Soccer Club. “They became so much more outgoing. They really found their voice.”
The organizers and volunteers who help run clinics, camps, and group activities are convinced of the power of sports to effect change. That belief stems from the lessons learned in the decades since 1972 when Title IX was adopted by the US federal government: that sport builds healthier, more confident girls. That sport teaches life lessons about cooperation and teamwork. That sport creates leaders.
The Women’s Sports Foundation has a gymnasium full of statistics backing up those assumptions, ones that are now taken for granted in the US and many other developed countries. Studies show that female participation in sports leads to higher graduation rates and test scores; to a wealth of measurements of improved health; to higher self-esteem; to lower drug use; lower pregnancy rates; and fewer eating disorders.
All those Western-molded lessons potentially hold true for girls and women anywhere. And all those newfound benefits can create strong women who will become involved leaders.
“Sports gives women the confidence to use their power, to be in leadership positions,” says Tuti Scott, a former executive at the Women’s Sports Foundation who now runs Imagine Philanthropy, an international consulting firm that supports philanthropy.
A young woman named Maihan Wali helped form a basketball league in Afghanistan. Despite discouragement and outright threats, she persevered and uses sports as a vehicle to teach other young women about their rights. Now the captain of her national team, Wali’s influence extends beyond sports. She spoke last summer at the Women Deliver conference in Washington DC and has been honored as a global changemaker.
“What sports does—in a safe environment—is give women their voice,” Scott says. “The woman who participates in sports might be more of a risk taker, might run for a council seat, might question how land ownership is decided, might make better decisions about how to tackle economic conditions. It all circles back.”
Scott is on the board of Women Win, an organization founded in 2007 to empower women through sports. Founder Astrid Aafjes started her organization after participating in a women’s race in Casablanca where witnessing 20,000 women racing through the streets of a Muslim country became a powerful, life-changing experience.
“Sports is positive, universal, and cuts across cultural differences,” Aafjes says. “A girl that feels confident about herself and understands her body will be more likely to say no to violence or unsafe sex.”
Despite the known benefits of getting girls involved in sports, numerous hurdles exist—including lack of resources and stubborn cultural codes—that challenge communities’ abilities to create these opportunities. Much of the funding for sports programs is top down, funneled through or influenced by massive entities such as the International Olympic Committee or FIFA, soccer’s international governing body. . . .