Written by Claudia Piras*
My daughter was 11 when we visited my family in Buenos Aires that year. One afternoon, as she does in Washington, she went with her cousins to play soccer in a nearby field. On her return, she told us surprised, rather proud, that the boys could not believe she knew how to play and that even some of them had approached to ask her where she came from. For Veronica, that moment on the field with a group of unknown boys became the most memorable anecdote of the trip.
With two athletic children of my own, I have lived closely the benefits of sports in their development. They have become my inspiration to seek the promotion of better sports opportunities for youth in Latin America.
The empirical evidence on the benefits of sports is strong. To practice sports regularly improves health, school performance and reduces the chance of risk behaviors such as alcohol and drugs, teenage pregnancy or violence. It has also proved to be an advantage for women in the labor market. Recently, my colleague Aimee Verdisco explained the beneficial relationship between exercise and brain function. But perhaps one of the greatest benefits of sports for children and young people is the development of socioemotional skills such as self-esteem and leadership, skills that are so valuable throughout life.
Latin America has always followed all kind of soccer championships. However, we are far from developing public policies based on the social benefits that sports provide to the population. Consequently, sports are a privilege where economic and cultural factors play an important role.
Although it is the less discussed, one of the dimensions of greatest inequity in sports is gender. Among the many reasons, we can highlight the prejudices about the activities girls can and should do, how they usually have more domestic responsibilities and less free time than boys, how limited resources and sports facilities are, the lack of role models, and the little media coverage of female athletes.
Sports are a secret weapon to advance towards gender equality. Sports help girls and adolescents to increase their confidence and self esteem. It is an opportunity to set goals and work hard to achieve them, to compete and to prove that they are competent, and that they can beat and overcome failures. Sports allow girls to prove to themselves and the rest of society what they are capable of.
Girls living up to the highest in El Alto, Bolivia
In this context, the project Girls living up to the highest (click here for more information) is an example of the power of sports to transform social norms and empower girls. In an environment where social exclusion, poverty, gender norms, and indigenous traditions intersect, the girls of El Alto in Bolivia could hardly play sports. And here is when a public-private partnership emerged proving two things: first, that with the addition of resources, ideas and wills it is possible to change the reality in a relatively short period of time; and second, that if girls weren’t practicing sports before it was not because of a lack of desire or ability.
[vsw id=”101939785″ source=”vimeo” width=”480″ height=”360″ autoplay=”no”]
To have a safe sports center in a good condition, with a fixed schedule assigned to the girls, coaches, and sports equipment is necessary but not sufficient. The young girls themselves recognize the importance of the involvement of the parents, since the biggest barriers are often at home.
After the first year, the enthusiasm of the girls became a snowball effect. More girls and schools joined, increasing the initial 600 girls enrolled to more than 2,000. The teachers from the seven participating schools were trained in recreational activities and educational fairs, so they could work with children in topics as rights, gender equality, leadership, self-esteem, and how sports offer opportunities to develop those aspects.
When we closed this project, which is now in the hands of the community of El Alto, for me there are two experiences beyond the numerical results that clearly demonstrate the potential of sports as a strategy to advance in gender equality. The first one, was to see Carlos caring for his one-year-old sister on the side of the field, while his older sister finished her soccer practice. The second one, was to hear Estefania saying proudly: “Thanks to the training, I am the best goalie of my school. Girls and boys are fighting over me.”
*This post was originally published in ¿Y si hablamos de igualdad?