Triumph of Women and Sport
“The problem with the Olympics and the World Cup is that those phases come and go,” says Scott. “It’s the sizzle, a moment in time.”
Scott notes that with the recent adoption of rugby as an Olympic sport, some underdeveloped countries are scrambling to use limited resources to create women’s rugby teams, which may or may not have lasting impact. Even successful programs, such as the Brazilian women’s national soccer team that finished second in both the last Women’s World Cup and the 2008 Olympics, struggles to maintain funding and relevance outside of the quadrennial cycles.
“To shift the culture in a positive way, you want sustainability,” Scott says. “That’s why the Olympic movement should put their money into schools and clubs.”
The top-down approach to funding and program development can be challenging.
“It can be philosophically problematic,” says Sarah Murray, communications director for Women Win. “Those in charge can be farthest removed from girls on the ground. Culturally, they’re out of sync.”
A general consensus is that grassroots efforts that produce a groundswell of results and community awareness—a model more emblematic in developing nations—are the most effective path to long-term change. Such programs usually don’t
exclusively focus on teaching sports-specific skills, but use sports as a catalyst for activity, health, and community building.
Deport-es Para Compartir introduces elementary school children in Mexico to games and sports through mixed gender teams. Right to Play supports girls programs in 20 countries, including basketball in Mali, soccer in Liberia, and volleyball in Pakistan. Soccer Without Borders has created an institute in Granada, Nicaragua, to use soccer as a tool for positive influence.
“As we develop our goals, we want to be culturally appropriate,” says Mary McVeigh, the executive director of Soccer Without Borders. “We don’t want to implant American values.”
Like Women Win and other organizations Soccer Without Borders tries to influence both ends of the spectrum. “We want to be bottom-up, top-down, and outside-in,” McVeigh says. “Local grassroots programs show the most efficiency. But once the bottom-up approach is shown to work, it’s important to get those at the top involved.”
The challenge lies in sustaining these embers of change. Barriers must be broken. The first step is navigating a path where sports can be recognized as more than just a privilege, but part of the basic necessities of life. That recognition already exists for many girls in developed nations, where parents are more likely to not only support but encourage girls to participate in sports. But in developing nations, oftentimes girls must fight for their right to play. Sports are viewed as a luxury, particularly for females. They are shut out of the field by lack of resources, and are forced to defy social and cultural rules that tell them “No.”
“I was a bit naïve,” says Ayub, who has—since her initial foray into the soccer world— seen women’s soccer in Afghanistan grow substantially. “I grew up in the US watching women’s soccer and I saw it as a gender-neutral sport. But it turned out to be the most male-dominated sport. The girls were challenging barriers on and off the field. Certainly it took an emotional toll.”
Girls in Muslim countries often can’t participate in sports in open areas, where men might see them. They are constricted by what they must wear. In many areas, finding a safe environment for play is a challenge. Around the world, families may feel threatened by seeing their daughters step out of traditional women’s roles.
“They have duties in their households, or are working outside the household,” McVeigh says. “You can’t tell the parents that sports are more valuable than bringing home money. That’s why you have to involve local community members.” . . .