Gender in Sports

The Role of Sport in Addressing Gender Issues

In recent years, there has been a significant shift from advocating for ‘gender equity in sport’ towards using ‘sport for gender equity and personal development’. This sub-section contains some of the evidence of this shift so far.

1. Women’s and girls’ health and well-being

A large amount of research into the extent to which sport and physical activity has a positive impact on health has shown that involvement in regular physical activity enhances physical and mental health and well-being, including among women and girls.

Reproductive health and illegal drug use

Research from both Western and non-Western contexts has shown that female athletes are less likely to exhibit risky sexual behaviour. For example, they were shown to have fewer sexual partners and were more likely to use contraception than their counterparts who did not participate in sports.

Research among young women in South Africa indicated that athletes from one sample were more likely to have fewer children than non-athlete females from the same region. Evidence from among young women in high-income countries shows that female athletes are less likely to consume drugs(such as cocaine, marijuana, etc.) than non-athletes.

Gender-specific disorders

Current research indicates that regular physical activity may decrease or slow down the onset of osteopenia and osteoporosis in women. Regular physical activity coupled with a calcium-rich diet can increase bone mineral density, reducing the risk of developing bone disorders and fractures among older women. Strong evidence supports the role regular exercise can play in controlling levels of fat, reducing the risk of lung and breast cancers.

2. Women’s and girls’ self-esteem and self-empowerment

Some research using the concept of self-esteem suggests that girls and women who participate in sport and physical activity in both developed and developing countries demonstrate higher self-esteem as well as improved self-perception, self-worth, self-efficacy and so on.

These improvements are associated with enhanced feelings of accomplishment, perceptions of improved physical appearance and commitment to exercise. Evidence from developing countries shows that involvement in organised sports activities helped to enhance girls’ sense of agency, self-empowerment and personal freedom.

3. Social inclusion and social integration of women and girls

There is a large amount of compelling evidence from both developed and developing countries reflecting the relationship between sport participation and social integration and social inclusion of women and girls.

Access to safe spaces becomes increasingly confined, restrictive, enclosed and domestic as girls in developing countries reach adolescence. Evidence from sport programmes shows that sport activities can allow women and girls access to safe social spaces in which they may exercise control and ownership.

Evidence from post-apartheid South Africa shows that young women from different backgrounds could use football as a platform to engage with one another, mentor each other, as well as develop friendships and strengthen relationships. Similar findings from Nigeria suggest that sport plays a crucial role in enhancing social cohesion and encouraging social interaction among young women and girls.

4. Challenging and transforming gender norms

Most research that examines the relationship between sport and gender refers to the transformative potential of sport to challenge or alter gender norms. ‘Gender norms’ refer to the responsibilities and privileges assigned to men and women.

Although the participation of women and girls in sport remains largely imbalanced when compared to participation among men and boys, most researchers are in agreement that the consistent and continued participation of women and girls in sport has had a major impact on achieving gender equality in certain contexts.

Research conducted on the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) programme reveal that girls’ participation in the MYSA football programme appears related to the way male football players perceive their roles.

Boys are observed to have adopted a positive and supportive attitude towards their female counterparts participating in the programme. Participation in the programme has become synonymous with being aware of gendered roles and norms.

5. Opportunities for women’s and girls’ leadership and achievement

Evidence from developing countries indicates that some sports programmes provide women and girls with opportunities to develop leadership skills. The Moving the Goal Posts Kilifi programme (MTGK) in Kenya provides opportunities for participants to compete and train, as well as participate directly in developing the organisation and overseeing governance.

In both the MYSA and MTGK girls’ football programmes, the provision of possibilities to develop specialised skills in coaching, refereeing, training, league organisation as well as access to information on health and peer education is of great value to the participants of these programmes. Exposure to competing internationally is seen to add a boost to public recognition of the skills that women and girls can develop through sport.

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Understanding and adapting to local contexts

This sub-section provides suggestions to bear in mind when attempting to understand local contexts and for appropriately adapting gender interventions through sport to local situations.

1. Socio-economic considerations

In many of today’s developing countries, everyday tasks to meet basic needs (food, shelter, etc.) require most time, leaving few to think of the perceived ‘luxury’ of recreational activities. In most cases, work conducted by women and girls in the home as providers of food and carers of the family is not considered as productive because it is not a directly income-generating activity, which implies the assumption that females may not require recreational or free time as much as men. In such contexts, it is important to determine the extent to which women and girls can access time and resources to participate in sport.

In developing countries, lack of time and division of labour between men and women may prevent women and girls from participating in social activities outside the home, including sport. At the beginning of the 20th century in Western Europe, most female sports were exclusive to the wealthier, upper class groups who had time to spare.

2. Socio-cultural issues

The socio-cultural context of established gender norms must be considered when conducting sport programmes that aim to address gender norms. It may be considered a provocation for women and girls in some contexts, to be seen in public, wearing sports attire that may not cover all parts of the body. Not behaving according to established gender norms determined by socio-cultural influences, can have significant negative consequences for those who deviate from these norms.

3. Safety concerns

Sport and physical activity deals primarily with the body and “physicality”. Adults or older children may hold a position of power in relation to their younger counterparts, especially when they are in the role of a coach or trainer. In this sense, children and young people are in a position of vulnerability. Codes of conduct for coaches and appropriate reporting systems are necessary to avoid incidents of possible abuse or exploitation.

The lack of appropriate facilities (e.g. with changing rooms, water and sanitation facilities, etc.) and/or sports equipment can deter women and girls from participating in sport activities. The risk of injury, especially towards women and girls, can be particularly restrictive.

4. Material, infrastructural and technical issues

Evidence from a sports programme in Bam, Iran shows that girls and women could only participate in sports and physical activity indoors, protected from public view. During the summer, activities were cancelled because it was not possible to open windows and doors while the female participants were playing.

Experience shows that facilities that are close to residential areas, with appropriate lighting are more likely to have greater participation of women and girls. Activities should also be scheduled at appropriate times, e.g. before dusk.

5. Ideals of masculinity and femininity

Sport is often perceived to express heterosexuality and male excellence. Experience shows that in most contexts, women who would like to be successful in sport competition have to demonstrate some ‘typically male’ attributes (such as: ambition, self-confidence, aggressiveness and power). Girls and women who ‘trespass’ on these socially and culturally defined boundaries, are seen to challenge and perhaps transform well-protected gender norms.

6. Lack of female role models
Research has shown that most girls learn ‘culturally-appropriate styles of movement’ by imitating their older female counterparts. But communicating the achievements of those exceptional women to others remains a challenge.

For example, media coverage of sports remains biased towards male sport, with comparatively less attention paid to the accomplishments of female athletes. Practical efforts to focus attention on the triumphs of women and girls in sport have shown to help other women and girls perceive possibilities for developing themselves.

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