Many cultures consider sport to be a male domain.1 Despite the increase of women athletes at all levels, from grassroots activities to the Olympic Games, girls are often barred from watching and participating in sport. Societies assume that the physical and psychological qualities associated with athleticism, such as strength and competitiveness, are “masculine.” In many traditional societies, a girl can be condemned for being pornographic for merely showing her skin in athletic clothing or raising her leg to kick a ball. When femininity in a culture is associated with being petite or soft, girls are often reluctant to build muscle mass.2 Becoming a wife often means giving up sport or other leisure activities. These attitudes about the role a girl should or should not play in society are imposed upon adolescent girls and, over time, adopted by them as well.
There are also misunderstandings when it comes to sport and its impact on girls’ sexual and reproductive health. Some fear that playing sport will cause loss of virginity. A common myth in some cultures is that the physical exertion of sport, such as running, kicking or jumping, will cause the hymen to tear. An intact hymen is erroneously seen as a physical indicator of virginity. In societies where a girl’s virginity before marriage is sacred, the threat of sport causing a tear can be a very serious concern.
Girls and society often have misunderstandings about the safety of participating in sport while menstruating. In addition, sanitary pads and tampons are expensive and are not a financial priority for many families, especially in traditional cultures or among economically disadvantaged families.3 When girls begin to menstruate, they are often confined to their homes and temporarily or totally cease participation in sport.
- Educate. Education is a powerful tool for combating negative attitudes about girls’ participation in sport programmes. Teaching girls, caregivers and community members about the health, economic and social benefits of physical activity for an adolescent girl can help change perceptions.
- Show images of women athletes or host events where programme participants are able to interact with a champion female athlete who is a positive role model.
- Invite caregivers, teachers and community members to visit the programme in action and to talk about their concerns.
- Create and implement a child protection policy and code of conduct that ensures there are guidelines detailing procedures and process needed to keep girls safe emotionally and physically in the programme.
- Train coaches and facilitators on the protection policy and code of conduct so that those who have the most contact with the girls can work to ensure their safety at all times during the programme.
- Talk openly with girls about perceptions of women athletes and encourage them to care more about themselves and what makes them happy and less about what others think of them.
- Enlist the support of male athletes, professionals or tribal elders who are respected in the community. Their support can help to defuse myths and solicit support from other community members.
- Use local pride as a motivator. For example, in Peru, the women’s national volleyball team won a silver medal in the 1988 Olympic Games. A grassroot sport programme leveraged that inspiration to build support for their girls’ volleyball team.
Recommendations: Fear of Virginity Loss
- Inform caregivers about your intention to discuss reproduction with their daughters as part of the sport programme. Once you have the support to have an honest conversation, you can educate girls that the only way to lose your virginity is through sexual intercourse. A girl’s hymen tearing is a physiological occurrence that can happen in a variety of ways, only one of them being sexual intercourse. Any pelvic trauma, such as that experienced when climbing a tree, riding a bike or participating in sport, can also cause tearing.4
- Encouraging girls to own their bodies and make decisions based on their own well-being as opposed to cultural stigmas and myths is the next step in this conversation. Include caregivers and community members in the conversation, as their fears around their daughters losing their virginity can limit participation.
Recommendations: Menstruation Prohibits Participation
- Teach girls how to manage menstruation while participating in sport. This could include training girls about how to use feminine hygiene products, such as sanitary pads, sponges and tampons. Encourage girls to use all products safely, including avoiding using tampons for prolonged periods of time and being exposed to risk of toxic shock syndrome.
- Consider providing feminine hygiene products for the girls if cost is an issue, or do fundraisers as a team to help offset the costs. If a girl cannot find the resources to purchase feminine hygiene products, educate her about safe alternatives, such as cloths or sponges.
- Let each girl know it is alright to play sport while menstruating, as long as she does not feel sick. Sometimes participation in sport might actually help her feel better. It is equally important for girls to know they can talk to trusted peers and coaches about cramps or other symptoms associated with menstruation without fear of judgment.
- Ask an accomplished female athlete to come discuss this subject of playing while menstruating with girl participants.
1. United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2007). Women 2000 and Beyond: Women, Gender Equality and Sport.
2. United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2007). Women 2000 and Beyond: Women, Gender Equality and Sport. Page 15.
3. Association for Women's Rights in Development (2005). AWID interviews Shiphrah Gichaga of the Forum for African Women Educationalists Kenya Chapter (FAWEK) about the organisation’s work in addressing menstruation management to ensure that girls’ education is not interrupted by their menstrual periods. By Kathambi Kinoti. Resource Net Friday File Issue 231, June 2005
4. Abder-Rahman, H. A. (2009). Hymen care for unmarried Muslim females: role of the forensic consultant in gynecology interventions. Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal, 15. Page 864