Sport’s ability to challenge social norms and boost self-esteem has made it an important tool to empower women and girls in Africa.

Female empowerment is a key issue in sustainable development. Throughout the world, women and girls do not have the same access to education, employment and decision-making positions as men and boys. In many instances, this inequality works to keep women and girls in poverty. The UN 2030 Agenda envisions “a world where gender equality will be a reality for every woman and girl, and where all legal, social and economic barriers to their empowerment will be removed”. Sport, as a cross-cutting tool, contributes to the achievement of this goal.    

Obstacles to female empowerment in Africa

In Africa, the obstacles to female empowerment are multiple. While women held positions of power in traditional societies, colonial rule relegated them to the private sphere and confined them to domestic tasks. A sexual division of labour persists between men and women, and women remain dependent on unpaid work. In patriarchal societies, women are often subject to the authority of a male spouse or community member, which also hinders their empowerment.

In addition, girls and women also suffer the consequences of early and forced marriage and early pregnancy. A 2018 World Bank study estimates that Africa lost 55.4 billion euros due to early marriage and de-schooling. All of the above have a negative impact on the empowerment of women in particular and human development in general.

Shaking up the social codes

Several tools can contribute to women’s empowerment, including the use of sport and physical activity. When women participate in sport – traditionally the prerogative of men – they may be able to challenge the norms of patriarchy, reclaim public space, question the processes of gendered socialisation, explore the relationship to their bodies and appropriate so-called virile and masculine practices based on physical confrontation and competition.

In doing so, women can increase their self-esteem and benefit from a better perception of their efficiency and personal freedom. Well-designed and delivered sport-based programmes can enable them to develop leadership skills and become better integrated into society. Through their success, they compensate for the lack of female role models, inspire new generations and work towards their empowerment and for sexual equality.

Empowerment initiatives

Several women who empowered themselves through sport are leading sports initiatives with social impact. Among them:

  • Géraldine Yema Robert, a former professional basketball player, Sport Impact Leader and founder of the Yemaly Association, which uses basketball as an educational tool for Gabonese youth. She recently became the General Coordinator of School and University championship in Gabon.
  • Amy Mbacké Thiam, 400 meters world champion in 2001, launched the Cœur de Lion Association, which promotes equal opportunity through athletics. She is now working as a Sports special advisor at the Presidency of the Republic of Senegal.
  • Isabelle Yacoubou, international basketball player and Sport Impact Leader, says “sport has given me a chance and now wants to help others”. She has organised basketball camps and has joined a study committee for the professionalisation of this sport in Benin.
  • In 2019, the UN named the freestyle footballer and Sport Impact Leader Lisa Zimouche as one of the 20 women of the year.

Through their track record and involvement in political and sports institutions, these Sport Impact Leaders promote the empowerment of women through sport.

While elite women’s sport is becoming more democratic, the next challenge is to focus on leisure sport (CODESRIA, 2010). Organisations like Women Win are working towards this, relying on sport and play to empower all women, and aiming to use sport to achieve SDG 5 as a whole.  

Find our Sport Impact Leaders’ portraits on our platform here