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Empowering Girls Out on the Playing Field

Gender inequality in the developing world makes it difficult for adolescent girls to reach their potential. Meg Smith, programs director for Women Win, believes encouraging girls to play sports is the key to helping them exercise their rights.

Written by Sonia Narang Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Photo2 moving the goalposts kilifi kenya photo courtesy women win
The Moving the Goalposts program in rural Kenya started 15 years ago with 100 girls and has grown to more than 5,000 participants. (Women Win)

In many parts of the world, being an adolescent girl means having little say over your life or your body. Child marriage, premature pregnancy, denial of education and gender-based violence are everyday realities for most of the 600 million girls growing up in developing countries.

To break free from repressive cultural norms takes self-confidence, leadership skills, bravery and strength – all things that Women Win believes a girl can learn, in part, on the sports field. The organization partners with grassroots groups in 20 countries, running programs that combine sports with leadership and life-skills training to give girls an all-round education in teamwork and women’s rights.

When programs director Meg Smith joined Women Win in 2012, she brought with her a decade of experience working with youth and health issues in Asia, and a childhood spent playing everything from touch rugby to netball in a sports-mad town in Australia.

Smith spoke with Women and Girls Hub about how sports can help a girl run, jump and kick her way to her full potential.

Women and Girls Hub: How does sports turn girls into leaders?

Meg Smith: When you give girls a safe place to play, they learn things like teamwork and communication, and they learn to set goals by themselves or with a team. They learn how to negotiate with their parents just to get to the field, with their coach to get on the field, and with their teammates to make decisions together. They learn to fail and to fail well, learn to get back up if they fail, and learn to take risks. We often say they learn to fail with dignity and learn to win with grace.

Women and Girls Hub: Can you tell us the story of one young girl whose life has been transformed by sports?

Smith: Linda comes from a super-poor family in Cambodia, in a rural village near the Thai-Cambodian border. Her parents couldn’t afford to send her to school, even though she really wanted to continue her education. She was pressured by her family to drop out of school and get married to a much older man. He was in his 40s or 50s, and she was only 14 or 15.

But Linda had already joined the Mighty Girls soccer program organized by the Sports and Leadership Training (SALT) Academy. She really wanted to keep going to school, so she told the people who were running the program what was happening and they tried to intervene. Her family said, “No, we need her to get married.” Luckily, there was a football tournament coming up, and that particular organization was able to take a team internationally for this tournament.

Linda negotiated with her family and told them, “If I get selected for this team, then I can go on the football trip, keep playing football and stay in school. And if not, I will drop out of school and get married.” She made the team, and she didn’t have to get married.

In Jordan, girls play soccer through the INJAZ program, launched in 2001 under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah. (Women Win)
In Jordan, girls play soccer through the INJAZ program, launched in 2001 under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah. (Women Win)

Women and Girls Hub: Female coaches provide great role models for a lot of the girls. What do girls learn from seeing strong female sports leaders?

Smith: It’s so important for girls to have a tangible role model and leader who they can look up to. These girls don’t get an opportunity to see women in sports. Even the female role models who are in sports are so different, play at a very high level, or are far out of reach for girls in the communities where we work.

It’s so easy for the girls to relate to local female coaches. And young girls who might not fit the stereotype of what a girl is meant to be – very feminine – are seeing their women coaches who don’t necessarily look like that and aren’t necessarily fitting that traditional gender role. It allows girls to see something different for themselves.

Women and Girls Hub: How do you use sports to help young women understand their sexual and reproductive health and rights?

Smith: There are a lot of life skills you learn through sports around communication, decision-making and planning for your future or goal setting. Playing a sport also teaches a few things about body confidence. Girls in particular, when they enter adolescence, are not really encouraged to move their bodies. We see this in a lot of our programs, especially in more conservative areas where girls don’t run, they don’t jump.

When I ask girls in the field, “How do you think the program helped you?” They always say, “I’m much healthier now. I’m much fitter now.”

It’s important just knowing how you can be physical, and that you can be strong, and you can have contact with someone else, because inevitably in sport, you touch other people. When girls start in our programs, often the ball literally hits them in the face, or they jump out of the way of it because they’d never really caught a ball before. Just knowing your body, understanding how it works, that’s got to be a helpful first step in maintaining your own bodily integrity and achieving your sexual and reproductive health and rights.

In many programs, girls just don’t play when they’re menstruating. That extends to other parts of their life. They don’t go to school when they’re menstruating, and then they don’t leave the house when they’re menstruating. Sports gives us a platform to start addressing those issues and myths. I can tell you I’ve heard some crazy myths about menstruation. If you jump when you’re menstruating, your womb will fall out. If you leave sanitary pads in the public toilets near the sports fields, the devil will eat your blood and kill your family. I mean, I could go on and on.

Many of the girls in our programs don’t have access to sanitary pads, but when they come to the sessions, the coach might bring sanitary pads so girls can play.

It also helps for them to see other girls who are more experienced at playing sports and showing them that these girls don’t stop playing when they’ve got their period.

Girls play soccer in northern Kenya through the Horn of Africa Development Initiative program. (Women Win)
Girls play soccer in northern Kenya through the Horn of Africa Development Initiative program. (Women Win)

Women and Girls Hub: How do these programs help girls stand up to domestic violence or gender abuse?

Smith: Sexual reproductive health rights and gender-based violence are very closely linked in a lot of ways. The girls learn how to take initiative, they learn to fall and get back up, and having that resiliency is really important.

We know from lots of research around the world that adolescence is the time where girls often become more isolated. If we can engage them in sports programs, then we know that they’re connected to a group of peers, and that’s really important from a social protection standpoint.

We teach girls about their rights, whether that’s about violence, female genital mutilation, early forced marriage or their right to continue education. We also put them in a safe space that gives them the ability to address some of those issues, either on their own or having their peers do that for them, or they can bring up those concerns to their coach or their organization. Often, girls just don’t have those channels.

Girls in rural Myanmar do a team cheer with a volleyball coach visiting from Kachin state in the north. Despite active conflict between Myanmar and Kachin rebels, the girls embraced their Kachin guest coach as a leader and role model. (Meg Smith)
Girls in rural Myanmar do a team cheer with a volleyball coach visiting from Kachin state in the north. Despite active conflict between Myanmar and Kachin rebels, the girls embraced their Kachin guest coach as a leader and role model. (Meg Smith)

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