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Poniéndose la Diez: Taking One for the Team for Women’s Sports

By - Oct 8 2014

small GirlsI grew up watching my little sister, who is not so little anymore, playing sports. She especially loved football (or “soccer,” as non-latinos would say), and had an amazing sense of space and time while playing. Though at home she was my little pesky sister, en la cancha, sports made her a confident leader; she wasn’t afraid of playing with older girls or older boys, and tended to lead her team regardless who was on it. Moreover, I saw how sports blurred many boundaries for her—in a good way. Football gave her common ground with girls from less privileged communities, allowing her to share her passion, her knowhow and her enthusiasm to empower her playmates. Through my sister, I saw firsthand the power of sports, of how once on the field, the values of sportsmanship and respect united everyone.  

Unfortunately, as time passed and she grew up, she realized that even though she loved to play, the opportunities to build a career in that space were limited for one main reason: she was a woman. It hit me, believe me it did.

With the International Day of the Girl just around the corner, I felt it important to share this story, and to share the progress made in making sports available to girls as a tool for growth and empowerment. After all, United Nations Resolution 66/170 says that “empowerment of and investment in girls are key in breaking the cycle of discrimination and violence and in promoting and protecting the full and effective enjoyment of their human rights.” I witnessed how sports gave my sister confidence in herself, her rights, and her dignity, and believe access to athletics can do the same for girls around the world.

Years after my sister stopped playing due to this inequity, I started working at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). My role here has given me the opportunity to be part of one of the region’s most successful sports for development programs. I have seen how sports are becoming an important tool to address the region’s main development challenges, including public health, education, violence, at risk youth, and crucially, gender. I have been involved in partnerships with both the public and private sector in developing amazing sports programs. But of the dozens currently in operation, one in particular hits close to home because it’s changing the norms that held my sister back from playing the sports she loved.

Niñas Viviendo con Altura is a unique program that uses sports not just to empower youth, but to empower girls in a community where they are traditionally denied access to athletics. In El Alto, Bolivia, located at more than 4,100 meters above sea level, the IDB, Fundación Estás Vivo,  Baisa (Club Bolivar), Fundación Alalay, Brightstar, Save the Children, the Bolivian Ministry of Public Works, Services and Housing, the Bolivian Viceministry of Housing and Urbanism and local authorities teamed up to develop this gender program. Little girls in this community enjoy playing sports, but have long lacked the resources and support to do so. Before the program, girls attempting to play a game of pick up football were met with responses like “football is for boys”.

To change this mindset, the project aimed to reach 670 girls between 12 and 18 years of age. Local citizens received training on how to develop sports programs with a gender focus, while girls were taught about leadership, communication, self-esteem and reproductive health. The program also involved the community, teaching them about the importance of gender equality and the value of sports as a tool to support the personal development of both boys and girls. I encourage you to meet these girls, to hear about their experiences, and to get a peak at the outcomes of this project by watching the video above.

For these reasons and many others, I’m confident to tell my sister, and many other girls in similar conditions, that things are changing to increase the role of women in sports and society. And I can tell my sister as well that her bigger brother is contributing, somehow, to achieve this.

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