In honor of Women's History Month, we are excited to share the reflections and learnings of Soccer Without Borders Maryland Program Coordinator Sarah Stangl from her recent coach exchange in Pakistan, which focused on addressing gender inequality through sport. The exchange, organized by Women Win and sponsored by the US Embassy, brought together coaches from 11 different American sports-based youth development organizations, representing a variety of sports ranging from soccer and cycling to wrestling and hiking. Hosted by Right to Play Pakistan’s incredible team, Sarah’s delegation spent one week visiting girls sports teams and programs in Karachi and Islamabad. Through their site visits, conversations, games, and workshops, they explored how individuals, communities and even entire countries can utilize sport to address gender based discrimination and violence.
Throughout our time in Pakistan, we heard stories about how gender inequality is a deeply ingrained and pervasive issue in Pakistani society. Our hosts explained that women are culturally expected to be quiet, accommodating, unobtrusive, and obedient. During a recent study conducted by the National Institute of Health, researchers found that women throughout Pakistan, regardless of age or economic status, report high rates of domestic violence, emotional abuse, and depression. So as you can imagine, in a country where women straddling motorcycles is considered taboo, women’s participation in sports is still widely considered unacceptable or even disgraceful. There are seldom few teams or clubs available for girls interested in athletics, and for those that do exist, girls face incredible barriers to participation. The female athletes that we met recounted stories of unsupportive family members, lack of transportation, public shaming or humiliation, threats to their safety, inadequate equipment or space to practice, and many more challenges. We even met one professional athlete whose family shunned her for years for wearing shorts in public.
Despite all of these barriers, girls all over Pakistan are finding ways to “get in the game” with the support of some incredible young leaders. During our week-long visit, we were very fortunate to learn from coaches and educators who are working tirelessly to provide girls with access to play and sports. We met a boxing coach who started the first female boxing club in his region and is training his daughter to compete internationally, and to coach her peers. We learned from facilitators using play activities to teach lessons about human rights in public schools. We even got a table tennis lesson from a female team from Peshawar, led by a young male coach who is sharing his passion for the sport with a group of girls from his hometown - and has led some of his players to international championships! These encounters quickly dismantled my preconceived notions about Pakistani society. I was so humbled by the bravery, compassion, and determination of the coaches we met - many of whom worked multiple jobs or even competed professionally in addition to their coaching responsibilities. I was deeply inspired by the clarity of their vision for a more inclusive future. Furthermore, I was in total awe of the resilience displayed by the young athletes that we met. They were fearless and so full of heart, eager to show us, and the world, that Pakistani girls are strong, and that Pakistan is becoming a place where female athletes can thrive. They are proudly making big strides for themselves, and for future generations.
Since returning in December, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on how my exchange with female athletes in Pakistan can inform my work as a sports based youth development coach with Soccer Without Borders here in the US. After all, we are still very much in the throes of our struggle for gender equality in this country, and the inequality between men and women in sports has come into sharper focus recently. I believe that the status of women in sports is very much a reflection of the progress of gender inclusivity in our country. Therefore, I’d like to take a moment to consider some ways in which we all as individuals can support female athletes in our lives, and in doing so, collectively move towards a more equal society:
“If she can see it, she can be it” - Girls need strong female role models in their lives. Consider volunteering with a local team, mentoring, or even trying out a new sport with your daughter.
When you ‘talk sports’ with friends or family, don’t forget to highlight the accomplishments of female athletes. Who says boys can’t look up to Rose Lavelle?
Support female athletes and teams (not just during the World Cup) - Do you know if your city or state has a NWSL team? When is the last time you went to a female athletic competition? It’s still uncommon to see male fans wearing female athletes’ jerseys.
Use your voice - Share stories of moments when you’ve confronted gender inequality or examples you’ve seen of others overcoming barriers. Speak up when you witness discriminatory behavior or practices, and help young people in your life to develop their voices as well!
In order to elevate the importance of girls engagement in sports on the international level, Soccer Without Borders, through the support of Common Goal and in partnership with Women Win, recently launched the Global Goal 5 Accelerator. The Accelerator, which kicked off in Uganda this month, takes a collaborative approach to advancing gender equality through soccer and sport-for-development organizations. This 10-month program addresses barriers for women and girls holistically: on the pitch, on the sidelines, in organizations, and in the media. Participants in the Accelerator (also to be held in the U.S. and Europe later this year) will bring their learnings and action plans back to local communities in order to strengthen their organizations’ capacity to provide more gender inclusive programming.
For more information, please visit https://www.soccerwithoutborders.org/accelerator