Confidence, resilience, social competence, autonomy, and optimism can be enhanced through physical activity, games, and sport.9 Essential life skills such as teamwork, cooperation, problem solving through communication and relationship building are inherent to sport and also crucial for adolescent girls to realise their SRHR. Furthermore, the type of quality sport programmes supported by Women Win always includes comprehensive life skills curricula. Coaches and team members can become important role models, and values such as gender equality and respect can be adopted through social learning. Thus, sport facilitates the development of life skills that are needed to translate knowledge, attitudes and behavioural intentions into actual behaviour.
Furthermore, sport has the potential to reach out to hard-to-access and vulnerable groups such as learners who dropped out of school and unemployed young adults, migrant populations and adolescent girls. Sport can be introduced to these groups through grassroots community-based initiatives with a low threshold for participation and at a low cost.10 Sport offers the opportunity for repetitive contact with coaches and peers, thus creating a natural forum for interactive discussions, life skill building, and peer education. For all of the above reasons, Women Win considers sport to be a feasible, accessible and affordable vehicle for promoting and enhancing SRHR. The following is a list of the reasons why.
1. SPORT IS A RELEVANT ENTRY POINT FOR DIALOGUE with adolescent girls and communities that leads into discussions on sensitive issues such as SRHR. It is only natural for adolescent girls to ask questions and receive guidance about their bodies and their health in relation to sport. This may start off with questions about healthy eating, getting stronger or increasing endurance. In this sense, sport programmes have unique opportunities to start non-threatening dialogues that could lead to elaborations on more sensitive issues such as menstruation, testing for HIV and hygiene check-ups, etc.
2. SPORT CAN BE AN ENABLING ENVIRONMENT; a place where important life skills such as decision-making and agency are learned. Sport builds essential life-skills that girls need to effectively and successfully exercise their SRHR. The underlying assumption is that empowering adolescent girls through sport will result in improved life skills and can contribute to sexual and reproductive health in the broadest sense—including pleasure, love and sexual well-being.
3. SPORT ENCOURAGES BOUNDARY SETTING. All games have rules. Most sport settings have boundaries. Part of playing the game revolves around learning the rules, abiding by them and demanding that others do as well. When it comes to girls’ bodies and sexuality, a key to educating girls about SRHR is helping them understand what acceptable behaviour is and what a violation is. In cultural settings where girls see women being violated constantly and where girls feel inferior to men and boys, it can be very challenging for girls to draw these lines. Using the framework of their sporting experience can help girls subconsciously develop an understanding for respect, fairness, justice and speaking out when there are violations.
4. GIRLS PARTICIPATION IN SPORT UNSETTLES GENDER ORDER. At the root of the suppression of adolescent girls’ SRHR is an unequal distribution of power between men and women. The mere existence of girls participating in sport - a male-dominated sphere - shakes this gender power order. If girls and women can play football or basketball, they show that they can be aggressive and physical. This adoption of masculine space and demonstration of strength can contribute to changing gender norms. When girls play, they raise questions about deeply rooted notions of masculinity and femininity. In doing so, they challenge the primary building block of their submission. However, it is important to note that girls’ participation in sport can also have undue negative effects and reactions. For example, males may feel threatened and feel the need to show their superiority through violence. This needs to be planned for and addressed within sport programmes.
5. SPORT GETS GIRLS OUT OF THE HOME. Research shows that the opinions and values of parents and caregivers can weigh heavily on SRHR decisions that adolescent girls make. Girls are often influenced by the choices their family members have made, or by cultural or traditional ideas and beliefs within their homes. Not always, but sometimes, these influences can be negative or harmful. Without knowing any alternatives, adolescent girls simply follow and make decisions based on what they see around them. By participating in sport programmes, girls are exposed to alternative ideas, helping them hold informed discussions with their families and defending certain choices they make concerning their SRHR.
Furthermore the large majority of gender-based violence (GBV) takes place in the home, where the survivor often experiences repeated attacks. In the case of girls, the crime is perpetrated most often by a male relative in a position of trust and the rights of the girl or young woman are usually sacrificed in order to protect the honour of the family and that of the adult perpetrator. When a girl participates in a sport programme, she creates a social safety net and outlet that can be a lifeline outside of her domestic environment.
6. SPORT MAKES GIRLS AWARE AND IN CONTROL OF THEIR BODIES. When a girl plays sport, she gains awareness of her body. When she is running, she recognises her lungs expanding, beads of sweat forming on her face. If she is playing netball, she learns to feel the ball on her fingertips, learns what her body feels like when she jumps, runs, becomes fatigued, becomes stronger. Her performance within sport relies, in part, on her ability to not just sense her body, but to control it. This awareness and control can have a transcendental and empowering effect. If a girl considers her body her own, she is more likely to become aware of, understand and demand bodily integrity. Adolescent girls who do get violated often disassociate from their body during the abuse as a survival mechanism and afterwards they often see their bodies as vessels for the violation. When handled with expertise and sensitivity, sport can help develop resiliency within adolescent girls, aiding the healing process.
7. SPORT GATHERS A CAPTIVE AND MOTIVATED AUDIENCE. With properly trained coaches, the sport setting can be an ideal place to deliver SRHR education. It offers an opportunity to convene girls outside of school, home, church or work. The coach has a captive audience, often without distractions or external pressures. Playing games, wearing a uniform, socialising with teammates and spending time in an environment where they are valued all serve as incentives for girls to learn about their rights and resources. Several programme partners report pairing training sessions with life skills lessons. If a girl wants to play, she is required to attend educational sessions. Beyond the logistical advantages, when coaches and peer leaders develop girls’ trust, they can serve as a vital outlet for discussing sensitive topics such as HIV/AIDS, STIs, GBV, to name a few.
8. SPORT BUILDS TRUST AND SOCIAL SUPPORT THROUGH TEAM. Anyone who has ever played on a team understands the bonds created between teammates. For a team to succeed on the field (or court), they need to develop a tight-knit connection off the field. This bond is built over time, by sharing space, learning to communicate, setting and achieving common goals and overcoming challenges together. For any girl, the resulting social net can be an incredible asset in navigating adolescence and SRHR. When a girl lives in poverty, for example, or has survived GBV, the value of this social support can be even more powerful.
9. SPORT TEACHES GIRLS TO ASK FOR HELP. “There is no ‘I’ in T.E.A.M.” That age-old sports adage gets at the heart of what it means to be part of a team. No one can score a goal or win a game alone. An inherent lesson in team sports participation is mutual reliance. Sport teaches girls that they are not alone, that they are responsible for each other, and that success means being able to accept help. When a girl experiences an unplanned pregnancy, for example, she can rely on knowing that it is OK to ask for help from a trusted coach, peer leader or teammate.
10. SPORT LESSONS TRANSLATE ‘OFF THE FIELD’. Given positive coaching, sport can be filled with lessons on self-esteem and confidence building. Girls are afforded rare opportunities to become leaders, to build physical strength, to be exposed to strong role models, to witness and be applauded for their own progress and to use their voices. And that’s important, because when adolescent girls feel positive about themselves, they are much more likely to withstand peer pressure to have sex before they are ready. In short, they are less likely to engage in behaviour that could put them at risk of unwanted pregnancy, STIs or HIV/AIDS.
11. SPORT IS A COURAGE BUILDER. Whether it is swimming for the first time, going up against a tough opponent or sparring with a bigger boxer, sport offers athletes a chance to look fear in the eyes. It also offers athletes a chance to develop courage and overcome fears. Reporting an abuse, standing up to a perpetrator and saying ‘No’ to unwanted sexual advances takes more courage than any sporting endeavour. However, the confidence a girl develops in her sport experience lends to her capacity and experience in overcoming the fear of reporting or seeking services and recourse.
12. SPORT GIVES GIRLS A PROUD PLACE IN THE COMMUNITY. Adolescent girls are often not entitled to inhabit public space in their community. When they do enter public space, they often face threats of harassment, kidnapping, rape or embarrassment. When participating in a sport programme, there is a shift that happens. These same girls are protected by the safety in numbers and the supervision of a coach or programme leader. Their existence on a playing field or basketball court gives them a certain entitlement to public space. When community members see them playing, their perceptions of girls and young women’s abilities and strengths begin to shift. Several programme partners report community members eventually cheering on girls at tournaments and events, and girls becoming a source of local pride.
13. SPORT IS A GREAT PLATFORM TO ENGAGE BOYS AND MEN; ESSENTIAL COUNTERPARTS IN SRHR. There is growing recognition among the international community that addressing gender inequities in health and promoting SRHR is not possible without efforts to directly engage men and boys as partners in these processes. 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 how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and why it is important, 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 about how to treat each other with honour and respect, and encouraged to do so, 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.