With all the sexist rubbish we've seen over the last few days, it's time we remember that sport can actually be a force for good, especially for women and girls. What do you know about the role of sport in broader social change?
Elizabeth Fitzgerald

28 Apr 2016 - 7:51 AM  UPDATED 28 Apr 2016 - 7:53 AM

In Australia, many of us are lucky to enjoy some of the benefits of taking part in sport. We play for fun, because we like competition, and because it makes us feel fit and healthy. Sport gives us a chance to get together with friends and meet new people, learn how to be leaders on and off the field, and gives a sense of camaraderie and teamwork. If we are not playing sport, we may enjoy spectating or volunteering at our local club, where we feel part of our community.

But sport can help to build communities as well as provide an opportunity to join them.  And policy makers, governments and NGOs are starting to harness the power of sport as a tool for development.

This is not entirely new.

Sport has been a way to get people from different backgrounds together from the Ancient Olympics, when people laid down their arms in a temporary peace, to 1914, when enemy soldiers played football together in the Christmas Truce. Sport can be a universal language.  

In the last decade or two, there has been an increased focus on how to formally incorporate sport into conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Sport can be a way to bring people together and provide a safe space in which to meet. It can break down barriers and bridge divides.

Because of this impact, sport has now been incorporated into the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals – a suite of 17 goals to “end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all”. These goals were adopted in 2015 by the UN General Assembly, and have replaced the Millennium Development Goals, which were specifically aimed at developing nations. The Sustainable Development Goals are aspirations for all countries to reach by 2030. Our understanding about how sport can help achieve them is growing.

In Syrian refugee camps, where children have experienced huge trauma and conflict, organisations like Right to Play use sport as a way to get kids from different cultural backgrounds to engage with each other and begin to understand how to communicate in a peaceful way.

While sport is important across many of the Sustainable Development Goals, Goal 5 aims specifically to ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’ and the UN also sees a role for sport here. Programs for women and girls that revolve around sport may actually be used to build a range of other skills and provide information on topics like health and sexual education.

Not only does sport offer obvious benefits like well-being and enjoyment, it can also provide a way for women and girls to be perceived differently. Through the act of playing sport, women and girls challenge existing gender roles and norms. In Kenya, a community program that involves girls in football changed not just the way the girls saw themselves, but also how the boys and their families saw them. From believing the girls’ place was in the home helping with chores, they began to see a role for them outside in the community.

SBS Zela recently reported on the way in which sport, through the Olympics, is being used to combat violence against women in Brazil. But while we can see positive change happening across the globe it is important to remember that, unlike the Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals apply to all nations - Australia included. There are lessons here for us in how sport can be used to meet the UN’s goals at home.

Can the Olympics help end violence against women and girls in Brazil?
How the IOC collaborated with the UN Women and Brazilian government to achieve gender equality and end violence against women and girls.

Just as sport has been changing perceptions in Kenya, it is the same in Australia. Women and girls who take part in “non-traditional” sports are breaking down barriers here. All those women that are out laying tackles on their local rugby field, training in the boxing ring, or on our television screens playing AFL, are helping to change the way we think about women’s abilities and strengths.

A Muslim woman who backs gay rights. A bare-shouldered boxer, her head uncovered, beside hijab-wearing relatives. “I’m different,” she says. "I'm different!" Kidnapped by her mother as a child and raised in Australia, Bianca Elmir has fought her way to the world championships. She won’t stop there.

We can also use sport to help new Australian women feel more at home. Whilst studies have shown that football, for example, is one way of helping migrants adjust to life in Australia, we know that participation rates are lower for women and girls from non-English speaking and ethnic minority backgrounds.  We need to better understand why this is the case, so that we can better engage these women in sport. This may help not only with individual health and wellbeing, but also with integration and forming bonds with their new communities.

Along with migrants, we know that girls around high school age tend to have lower levels of participation in sport. This is a problem not just because of poorer health outcomes, but also because sport helps girls in many aspects of their life, including school performance and increased self-esteem. There is also evidence that a sports background helps with career progression, as skills like leadership and teamwork are learned. Sport can empower women and girls, and the ‘Girls Make Your Move’ campaign is one way to try to achieve this.

While generally Australians do not need to worry about laying down their weapons to enter a sports field, there is still work to do in meeting the UN’s goals here. Sport can be a tool to help with gender equality and empowering women and girls in Australia just as it can in other parts of the globe. Of course, we cannot expect that everyone will want to take part in sport even when all barriers are removed, nor will sport be the answer to every issue. But sport can be used strategically as part of the broader endeavour for gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.

Women and girls in Australia face different challenges than those in Kenya, Brazil or Syria, but ultimately sport is something we have in common that can be a way to meet the shared Sustainable Development Goals.

To learn more about sport and development, a couple of places to start are www.sportanddev.org and www.iwg-gti.org.