Women face both subtle and explicit barriers to participating in sports. From societal discrimination to less funding for women’s sports leagues, women athletes worldwide compete at a disadvantage.
The sporting world epitomizes many gender stereotypes persisting around the world today, and has proved highly resistant to meaningful gender reform.
Women athletes receive far less media coverage, and are subjected to sexist and derogatory language in the media and from people in their communities. They are seldom offered lucrative product endorsements like male athletes.
Rwanda’s women athletes
In Rwanda, women are seeing increasing opportunities to play sports. New sporting opportunities are blooming, such as women’s football and volleyball leagues. Women have formed a football association called AKWOS (Association of Kigali Women for Sports) According to its president, Felicite Rwemarika; it was believed that women should never get involved in sports. Women were saddled with a stigma that they should just take care of household chores.
“It took us 2 years to convince and mobilize mothers to let their daughters play,” Rwemarika said. “Finally, we got a breakthrough and started getting more players. We organised local matches as a campaign drive to encourage women’s soccer. Now we have grown and received recognition by integration into FERWAFA (Rwandan National Football Federation).”
The association was formed to empower women in Rwanda through sports and education, improve women’s rights, boost self-confidence and prevent HIV/Aids. Thus, so far they have formed women sports teams in all provinces in Rwanda.
AKWOS has also trained Rwandan women coaches in every province. Rwanda now has 26 women coaches.
Rwemarika says “Rwandan women are coming to know and enjoy the benefits of sports. Before the war women could not participate in sports, people saw it as something for men only. That’s why we are encouraging women to also participate in sports like in other countries.”
The 25 sports federations in Rwanda have also registered both men’s and women’s teams, and women are participating in ever greater numbers. But Rwanda still has a long way to go to provide all people equal opportunities to compete in sports, particularly within schools and communities.
By creating opportunities for women and girls to engage in sport, communities empower women, promote self-confidence, leadership, teamwork and a sense of achievement.
Sport challenges negative gender roles within society, providing both women and men a space in which they can renegotiate concepts of femininity and masculinity and challenge stereotypes that label women as weak or inferior.
Lack of female role models
Sports personalities flood news headlines, promote all sorts of products and are among the most recognized celebrities worldwide. Even children in remote African villages wear T-shirts and carry notebooks depicting football stars from Manchester United and Bayern München.
These athletes serve as role models and idols for children around the world, particularly during major sporting events like the World Cup.
But female sports stars are startlingly absent. As a result, girls who aspire to play sports have less exposure to female role models and are less able to benefit from the positive example these athletes provide.
An example from research conducted in Lusaka and Kabwe, Zambia by the Swiss Academy for Development illustrates this dearth. When a group of boys and girls were asked to name their sports idols, 61 per cent of girls could not name a single professional athlete.
Of those who could only 19 per cent mentioned a woman.
By comparison, 87 per cent of boys questioned could name a sports star. A definitive 0% named a woman.
Women comprised 40.7 per cent of participants in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, a record in women’s participation. However, many countries send fewer female participants than male. Some countries send no women at all. Analysis of Olympic coverage in recent years shows a persistent bias against coverage of women’s events, with no improvement over time.
Benefits of sport
Physical activity develops healthy life style habits and is beneficial for physical and mental health.
Just four hours of physical activity a week has been shown to reduce the risk of many diseases, such as breast cancer and heart disease.
Developing such positive habits in childhood can have life-long positive benefits.
The beneficial effects of sport on individual health accelerate overall health indicators of the community.
Furthermore, there is a strong connection between participation in sport and academic success. Children who participate in sports tend to be more focused, disciplined in their studies and successful in school. Participation in sports is also intrinsically linked to community development initiatives.
The values which sport enshrines - teamwork, inclusion, and personal achievement - build a strong foundation for personal and community growth.
In terms of economic growth, creation of sports teams can provide jobs as athletes, coaches, managers, and administrative staff; the worldwide trade in sporting goods can provide opportunities for product exports; and the revenue brought in by hosting major sporting events can be used to support economic growth in other areas.
In post-conflict environments such as Rwanda, sports has been used effectively to promote reconciliation between divided groups.
Sporting events present an opportunity to bring groups together in a forum which is competitive without being adversarial, learning to work through and see beyond their differences.
In countries divided by civil strife, common support for a national sports team can unite divided parties in their shared joy and enthusiasm.
As Rwanda continues to develop socially and economically, women athletes are claiming their right to compete.
Hopefully, within the next generation, they will no longer have to struggle against a sexist and unsupportive society and exclusive sports environment, and get to focus their energy into what they train for: the game.