In August 2012 I had a great opportunity to work with a group in Northern Kenya called Horn of Development Initiative (HODI). This organization worked on many development projects in their community and had found that through sports, particularly football, they could extend their programs to young female participants, who were often very difficult to reach in the community. The picture to the left was taken at the training with many of these young females, many of whom had taken on leadership and coaching roles in their communities. The coach who is wearing this t-shirt is a role model to the girls and although she herself never had much experience in sports or in formal training settings, she still understands that the power of bringing girls together in a safe place and giving them the opportunity to play, learn from each other and be part of a small community is crucial to their present and future lives. These girls most likely will never get the opportunities to play at a high level or a level which could take them to university or even in a formal league setting, however, the skills and experience that they are gaining at the local levels are integral in their developments. This t-shirt also reminds me that the term ‘empowerment’ differs from one community to the next. It makes me reflect on my own experiences with sport and after working with many groups in different countries that use sport as a tool for development particularly with youth, I now have a better understanding of these experiences. Growing up in an American suburb where I was given ample opportunities to play sports with the support of my parents, family, school and community, I never could have understood that playing sports for girls in most of the world is still quite a privilege. It was the norm for me to have these opportunities to play and to have coaches and teammates that all were working towards similar goals. Although I always felt very lucky to have paid for my education at the university level with my participation in sports, I never realized that this was also an opportunity that was very unique to few places in the world. I also recognize that my opportunity to play at the university level didn’t always exist and that there have been many women and men who have fought tirelessly for females to be afforded these opportunities to play sports at the university level.
When I think of these experiences and how they shaped who I am today then I realize that participating in sports provided me with a safe learning space to grow, learn and to develop and not just physically. I am familiar with the common qualities often connected to sports, particularly team sports, such as communication skills, teamwork, resilience, dealing with wins and losses, among others. However, I think that there are in fact so many more skills that one can learn through sports, provided that there is a safe sporting environment with supportive and caring coaches and community stakeholders who are interested in not only the sport achievements but also in the overall learning and development of the youth participants. One article I recently read about a report published by Ernst & Young looking at female professionals and their experiences in team sports stated that, “Not only do the majority of senior women executives have sports in their background, they recognize that the behaviors and techniques learned through sports are critical to motivating teams and improving performance in a corporate environment,” Ernst & Young’s global vice chairwoman of public policy Beth Brooke said in a press release. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/19/women-in-sports_n_3466691.html). Many reports looking specifically at young girls have noted that sports can be effective tools in preventing violent behaviors, early childhood pregnancies and drug abuse, however, this report shows that the benefits of playing sports can last even longer in an individuals life.
There are many examples in the American and western context where sports are connected to themes of empowerment and as this report shows there are many benefits for young females to participate in sports. It is important to realize that these opportunities don’t exist for many girls around the world who do also wish to play, express themselves through sport and play and be part of a team environment. In recognizing this fact, it is key to support organizations, initiatives, groups, etc that are working to provide these sport activities for young girls, because many times it takes a lot of courage for young girls to get off the sidelines and enter onto the pitch, field, playground, etc. Groups like the Empowerment through Leadership Series aims to give voices to these types of grassroots groups that are working to provide young females with these opportunities, no matter if their playing space is a small makeshift field with bottles used as goals to a nice turf pitch with cheering parents on the sideline. Sports provide the platform for learning, growth and unique experiences, and it is important that if one supports female sports in their own community that they also look around to see where else they can support females wanting to get off the sideline and who are eager to play.