Each year the 8th of March is International Women’s Day: a way to promote gender equality, which is still not found everywhere in society.

Yet equality is a basic human right, irrespective of gender, sexual orientation or any other difference. The wage gap and the lack of women in positions at certain levels and in political and financial bodies are examples which show the distance still to be travelled to reach real gender equality.

This is the purpose of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goal 5. It aims to empower all women and girls, to achieve gender equality and to end all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls all over the world. The United Nations states that this goal works in conjunction with the 16 other SDGs. It allows all public policies to be designed and implemented from the perspective of gender, encourages the development of specific policies to combat continuing inequality and requires positive measures in favour of women.

In Africa in particular, sport can be a major ally in pursuing this goal. In a continent with deeply engrained cultural traditions, the underrepresentation of women in political, economic and community spheres constitutes an obstacle to development. That is why, since the United Nations 2030 Agenda was adopted, there have been new political initiatives aimed at promoting the place of women in society. It is not unusual now to find role models for young people in the numerous African women athletes fighting for equality.

The United Nations 2030 Agenda itself defines sport as “an important enabler of sustainable development”, with its contribution to the empowerment of women and girls as well as to health, education and social inclusion objectives.

The desire to place sport at the heart of a strategy for empowering women and girls is one of the cornerstones of the Kazan Action Plan adopted in 2017. This Plan confirmed the importance attached to gender equality through sport. This commitment can be seen in the greater collaboration with football authorities and international bodies. For example, the “Football for Schools” programme set up by FIFA aims to make football more accessible for boys and girls throughout the world, while contributing to the children’s education and development. Another ambition of this programme is its extension through projects in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Sport can be a force for removing the obstacles encountered by women and can help them to realise their full potential. This is shown by athletes such as former footballer Eniola Aluko, who was born in Nigeria and took part in the Olympics, and is now an accomplished lawyer and activist for African development. Other sporting figures are now active for development. Tegla Louroupe, the first woman to win the New York marathon in 1994, is now a global spokesperson for peace and a gender equality activist. This serves to demonstrate to African girls that sport can enable them to realise their full potential and that it can also be a tool for raising awareness. Since the Women’s Football World Cup in France in 2019, top-level women athletes such as Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan have set themselves up as role models for young Americans on social and political issues. They have taken a stand in defence of minority rights and against racism. In Burkina Faso, the “Tackle Africa” initiative launched in 2020 brings together local NGOs and uses sport as a means to educating about health matters. Access to contraception, combating physical violence and rape, and opposing forced marriages are some of the issues tackled during the special days which include football matches, often mixed, to make the interaction between boys and girls easier.

Sport can also constitute an empowerment tool for women around the world. In Kenya, an initiative called “Breaking the Silence” gives girls who have been the victims of rape or genital mutilation the chance to talk to each other about these painful subjects. In this way women are encouraged to develop skills in communicating and listening and to speak out in order to break the taboos associated with gender inequality. “Breaking the Silence” has the support of bodies such as FIFA and the NGO Women Win, and it uses the sports community to help teenagers. Football was not chosen at random, but because it involves breaking gender stereotypes through a sport associated with masculinity. Sport allows girls to discuss things, to be more confident and to bring about change in their villages or communities. Between 2013 and 2015, more than 1000 girls took part in the programme, 500 parents were made aware of the issues, 13 schools were provided with training and the association aims to reach 4000 teenagers by 2021.

The “Fight for Dignity” project, founded in 2017 by Laurence Fischer, the French triple karate world champion, helps women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to put their lives together and find confidence in themselves again by doing martial arts. There are many other initiatives emerging in Africa, often instigated by civil society, which demonstrate the vitality of this subject and the importance of sport as a tool for empowerment.

Photo credit : LYSD ; Terang’Aby