Emerging Voices features regular contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Katie Rock, a human rights attorney who is currently launching Activyst, a socially-conscious company that funds girls’ sports programs worldwide. Here, she discusses the benefits of girls’ involvement in sports and how to understand and overcome the obstacles to their participation.
The fact that girls in developing countries face unique hardships is well understood. These girls frequently have less access to education than boys, leading to illiteracy and fewer work opportunities. Adolescent pregnancy is commonplace in the developing world, where the vast majority of teen pregnancies occur and maternal mortality is a leading cause of death for teen women. Three-fourths of teen HIV cases globally are among females, and cervical and other cancers are on the rise in developing countries. Abuse is another persistent issue, with one in three females worldwide having been physically or sexually abused.
However, there is a high impact but often overlooked opportunity to improve girls’ lives and prospects: sports. As detailed in a compilation of research by the Women’s Sports Foundation, sports have profound effects on girls in virtually all aspects of life. Girls who play sports reach higher levels of education and do better in school. They are less likely to develop breast cancer and other chronic diseases, get pregnant in adolescence, engage in high-risk sexual behavior, or stay in an abusive relationship.
Yet, in the developing world where girls most need these benefits, they rarely play sports. And while the idea of sports as a solution may seem simple, increasing girls’ participation is far from it; the barriers are heavily influenced by local political, economic, and social contexts. Consequently, it is imperative to understand these barriers in order to implement sports programs that garner local support.
Working with the Pan American Health Organization from 2010 to 2012, I investigated why girls in Nicaragua–where girls’ conditions are among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere–rarely play sports. Interestingly, we found that there are few organized sports for girls or for boys in Nicaragua; yet, boys’ participation rates are much higher than girls’ participation rates.
We discovered two primary (and related) barriers to girls’ sports that shed light on this situation. First, girls explained that there are no places for them to play; the public fields in their neighborhoods are generally understood to be “un lugar para los hombres”–a place for the men. The few girls who had tried to play in those places reported being told to leave or harassed. The streets, where most sports are actually played in Nicaragua, were no better. While it is accepted, and even expected, for boys to play unsupervised in the streets, this is viewed as odd or unsafe for girls.
Exploring this environmental issue further, we asked girls where they would prefer to play sports. They overwhelmingly responded they would prefer to play in their schools, which were generally safe spaces where girls already felt comfortable.
The second primary barrier was the lack of parental permission to play sports. Girls explained that their parents worried about their safety outside the home, thinking they might be assaulted or “get into problems” (meaning, for example, that they would skip practice to spend time with boys and risk getting pregnant). Some parents also needed their daughters in the home, or simply did not believe sports should be a priority.
On further exploration, we found that parents in Nicaragua are not necessarily against sports or letting their daughters leave the home. However, they are strongly protective. They will allow their daughters to leave home, so long as there is a transfer of “protection” to someone else they trust. Again, school came to the forefront as an acceptable place for girls.
Through these findings, we better understood why, despite the similar lack of organized sports activities, boys still play sports in high numbers and girls do not. Boys do not require a designated activity, setting, and coach; they can simply play in the neighborhood with friends. However, the streets are not an option for girls; when there are no organized sports activities, it is the same as no opportunities at all.
To increase girls’ participation in sports in Nicaragua, supporters must address the barriers uniquely experienced by girls. This means increasing organized activities for girls (and dedicating funding to doing so), ensuring these activities take place in a safe space, and establishing trust between coaches and parents. Activyst, the start-up I have been building, generates funding for organizations offering organized sports activities for girls worldwide. Our first nonprofit partner, Soccer Without Borders in Nicaragua, has worked to understand and address these local barriers, forming trust with parents and making safe spaces and schools centerpieces of the program. Their own programs now reach 130 girls, and they reach 1,200 more through outreach in gym classes at local schools.
Sports can help girls live healthier, safer, and more productive lives. With further understanding of the barriers in other regions, and the support of organizations creating programming that takes account of local contexts, we can enable more girls worldwide to reap the many benefits of sports.