MIFUMI, a women's rights based organisation in Uganda, uses karate and tae kwon do to educate girls about domestic violence and empower them physically and emotionally against it. When the programme began, Project Coordinator Janet Otte reported that boys were physically attacking girls on their way home from training. They were uneducated in martial arts and wanted to show the girls that they, too, could fight. Janet made the decision to include boys occasionally to educate them about the non-violent principles of martial arts to help keep girls safe.
Mixed-gender sport participation can have a positive impact on girls’ development. The following is a list of reported positive reasons why programme partners mixed boys and girls in trainings and discussions.
1. Empowering Girls In The Presence of Boys
Although girls may be shy at first when participating or speaking up in front of boys, programme partners report girls find increased confidence in themselves when they are able to demonstrate their skills and strength in front of male peers.
2. Changing The Perspective Girls And Boys Have of Each Other
Communities and individuals are at risk when girls and boys are not educated about life skills and appropriate gender dynamics. If children do not understand the how and why to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, they are more likely to spread infection. If a boy sees girls being treated as second-class citizens, and no one speaks up against it, he will do the same. However, if girls and boys are educated and encouraged about how to treat each other with honour and respect, they can be part of each other’s peer empowerment, instead of contributing to unequal and destructive power dynamics. Sport programmes in which boys and girls are taught life skills can impact an entire community’s sense of what is possible in terms of communication, mutual respect and the potential for girls’ contributions on and off the playing field.
3. Facilitating Positive Cross-Gender Communication
Social cues teach boys and girls over time how they should communicate with one another. When a boy hears his father say disparaging things to his mother, he learns something about what is an acceptable way to talk to women. Conversely, if he is taught to be respectful, honest and open with women, his communication and treatment of girls outside of that environment is likely to improve. Sport programmes can give girls and boys the tools to talk about sensitive issues, handle conflict respectfully and use appropriate language in a protected environment. This can have wide-reaching, positive ramifications outside of the playing field.
4. Diffusing Potential Gender-Based Challenges
When boys see girls participating in sport, receiving uniforms, instruction and attention, they are likely to become curious. If they are not included, boys can become jealous and challenge girls physically and emotionally when girls leave trainings. In this way, sport programmes can actually escalate instances of gender-based violence and abuse. If boys are invited occasionally to see what is happening in the sport programme sessions and educated about why girls are playing sport, they may become allies with the programme and be less likely to make jealousy-inspired challenges.
5. Girls Care What Boys Think
In all communities, boys play a big role in the lives of girls. Girls in adolescence often overvalue the opinions of their male peers. If boys like a girls’ sport programme and become allies of it, they are less likely to demean or challenge a girl’s participation. If they feel threatened or excluded, teasing and harassment by boys in the community could reduce the number of girls who want to participate, as well as diminish the self-confidence of girls participating in the program. On the contrary, inviting a boys’ team to come and support girls at a game or event can be a powerful statement and affirm a girl’s participation in the programme.