As my colleague Isobel Coleman wrote last week, Saudi Arabia has just leaped a small hurdle towards gender equality: announcing last week that it will allow female athletics in private schools. Until now girls have been prohibited from playing sports as a part of formal education. The move comes on the heels of last year’s decision to allow two Saudi women to compete in the Olympics for the first time in the country’s history.
While allowing a few girls to play sports may seem inconsequential, it is a small step that may have ripple effects for gender equality in the country. And while a valuable goal in itself, greater gender equality is also correlated with the achievement of other development goals, such as improvements in health, education, social and economic rights fulfillment, and even economic growth.
As noted in my August 21, 2012 blog post, UNDP finds a broad correlation between gender inequality and human development outcomes. Low-ranking countries on the Human Development Index (HDI) in general perform much more poorly on gender inequality measurements than do high-HDI countries. Higher levels of female education and literacy have been found to reduce child mortality and improve educational outcomes for the next generation. The presence of women in political leadership positions appears to increase schooling for girls. Lower fertility rates, also associated with increased educational attainment for women, can have a positive effect on growth, while gender inequality in education undermines growth. In my own recent research, my colleagues and I show a strong correlation between gender equality and economic and social rights fulfillment, finding a positive relationship between our Social & Economic Fulfillment Rights Index and Social Watch’s Gender Equity Index and UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index.
Saudi Arabia already has quite high SERF and HDI scores relative to its poor gender equality score. However, steps in the direction of gender parity even at the level of athletics can have positive effects on women’s equality within the country more broadly, and may help sustain and increase high levels of development in the long term. Playing sports can be an essential part of education, teaching leadership and teamwork to participants, as well as improving self-esteem and overall health. (For more on this, Emerging Voices contributor Katie Rock discusses the substantial benefits of giving girls the opportunity to play sports and the challenges of doing so, as she’s seen through her work in Nicaragua).
Though the Saudi reform only applies to private schools initially, the decision is interpreted by many as a test before expanding girls’ sports to public schools. The move also calls for ensuring proper facilities for women to practice, no small order in a country where adequate space for women to exercise in private, in accordance with sharia law, is severely lacking. More girls on the soccer field is a small leap forward well worth celebrating.