Triumph of Women and Sport
The barriers exist everywhere, including the US. Despite the great strides made in the world of women’s sports, the benefits are still often reserved for the children of privilege.
Marlene Bjornsrud has spent her life in sports, as a collegiate athletic director and as a general manager in the former WUSA, the women’s professional soccer league that disbanded in 2003. She, along with soccer stars Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy, founded BAWSI (the Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative), which brings collegiate athletes into underprivileged schools to run afterschool programs focusing on health and fitness.
Just a stone’s throw from elite Bay Area college campuses where women athletes are afforded the same opportunity as men, Bjornsrud faces enormous cultural barriers—poverty, gang families, domestic violence—to involving young girls in her programs.
“I’m increasingly concerned about the huge number of girls who will never have the opportunity to play sports,” she says. “Some of it is pure economics. There’s a high price tag to playing sports even at an entry level. And the other piece is cultural. Some families don’t see the value of girls playing sports, or see it as a negative, a distraction that takes them away from helping with the children or the meals.”
But six years into her program, she is gratified to see girls owning a piece of the playground, becoming more physically active, and being regularly exposed to strong, educated role models. BAWSI has a mothers program to encourage further family support. Bjornsrud has schools lining up to bring BAWSI to their campuses.
“Our BAWSI girls feel connected, they feel special,” says Norma Rodriguez, the principal at Dorsa Elementary School in San Jose, California, which has had a BAWSI program since 2005. “We have fifth graders applying to be junior coaches for the younger girls because they want to be like their team leaders. They want to be role models.”
There are pockets of change around the globe. But quantifying the success of programs is difficult. The tangible benefits—reduced domestic violence and early pregnancy rates, the development of young girls into community leaders—may be impossible to tabulate for years, if ever.
But every organization is fueled by its own success stories.
Women Win supports Boxgirls, which organizes boxing and self-defense classes for girls in Kenya’s Nairobi slums. Vinter, a 12-year-old captain, says:
“I am small, but I am a leader. I train young girls to be strong and confident…and also how to respect others in society.”
Dina Buchbinder Auron, the director of Deport-es Para Compatir, is fueled by the sight of working women in Mexico City, who—after raising their children—began playing volleyball and found new meaning in life. And by an indigenous 10-year-old boy telling her, “I did not know women could play and even do it better than us.”
In Nicaragua, 17-year-old Yelba Sirias has moved from T.E.A.M. Granada to the Nicaraguan under-20 national soccer team. She has traveled with her team to El Salvador and is now working as a coach with Soccer Without Borders.
And in Sweden, serious young Jamil Zina-Zizo notes that when she left Iraq, “You cannot talk about girls’ football. It does not exist.” But when she returned home, she had started the conversation.