The Equity Call: Why we need authentic, measurable and accountable gender mainstreaming in sport for development
Regardless of where I am in the world, the question I inevitably get asked when advocating for girls to have access to sport and personal development is, ‘But what about the boys?’ Although this should clearly be an AND, not an OR, conversation, my response is a simple question: Do girls currently have equal access to sport in your community, programme or school? Can, and do, they play sport in public spaces? If not, then let’s go back to ‘but what about the girls’.
We cannot speak about peace without equal representation of the community at all levels. As Sport is increasingly recognized as a powerful tool for individual and community development, this needs to be addressed. As the leader of a women’s rights organisation whose mission is to ‘equip adolescent girls to exercise their rights through sport’, I am uncomfortable with how much of the language in sport for development is gender neutral, referring simply to ‘youth’. In this sector, we often claim to be doing work on gender equity, without approaching our work with a gender lens. The reality is, that throughout the diversity of actors in our space, most of the investments, research, participation, and quality sport development opportunities are based on a definition of ‘youth,’ and as a result are disproportionally dominated by boys and young men. What I have described is the reality and an illustration for why need a call for equity.
This is a call for measurable and accountable gender mainstreaming in sport for development.
Mainstreaming involves ensuring that gender perspectives and attention to the goal of gender equality are central to all activities. It calls for an authentic perspective in the process of assessing the implications for girls and boys of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in all areas and at all levels. When executed properly, this is a strategy for making girls’, as well as boys’, needs, concerns and experiences an integral dimension of all aspects of programmes and policies. The ultimate goal of mainstreaming is to achieve gender equality. The point here is not to exclude boys and men, but to authentically include girls and women.
With regard to sport for development, while there are some measurable gains in gender equality in participation, excluding girl only programmes, there is limited progress in gender equity. So, what is the difference and why does it matter?
The difference is “gender equality requires equal enjoyment by women and men of socially-valued goods, opportunities, resources and rewards” and gender equity “is the process of being fair to women and men.” While subtle, the nuance has significant consequences, as gender equity serves to level the playing field and empower girls and women. Therefore, equity is essential to achieve true equality. This is evident throughout the spectrum of “sport plus development” to “development plus sport.”
Working across a range of organisations across sectors and regions, it is rare to find gender equity (even where some level of gender equality is being achieved at participant level). This is especially evident when measured across the leadership axis – from participants, coaches, to volunteers moving into management, and executive teams onto governing boards. With the exception of women / girl-only programmes, the organisational pyramids inevitably have girls and women in limited comparative numbers as one moves beyond participation into positions of authority and compensation. This is even more visible in the relative lack of equitable access to facilities and equipment, level of sports instruction, opportunities for competition, presence of female coaches and role models, etc.
Gender mainstreaming is not simply allowing girls to participate in programmes or putting a girl’s picture on a web site, or legitimizing request for funding. It means designing a girl specific curriculum and safe space with their unique needs in mind, and having that curriculum delivered by an appropriate and equitable gender balance of role models. What might it look like if we considered the different life experiences, responsibilities and needs of girls and compensating for their historical discrimination in sport? Gender mainstreaming means ensuring that women are visible across organisations, in equal numbers and in an equitable manner as men. And, yes this includes management teams, executives and boards. This does not however mean that only women-led organisations do good work in this area – we know and applaud many organisations run by men who are doing exceptional work. And, conversely, simply having women in leadership positions is not enough to build an effective and impactful organisation. How might things change if we all set organisational goals against these aims and reported on them?
As funding for girls as an economic asset and powerful agent of change increases, and the sport for development sector works on gender equity, we must bring a rigorous and authentic gender lens to our work. We simply cannot continue to use the broad word ‘youth’ when describing success (or failure) in this area, as it is limiting and inaccurate. We also cannot assume that boys and girls in our programmes and the men and women supporting them have the same experiences. Finally, we need to understand and plan for the unique and powerful outcomes that can be achieved when a girl gets visible access to quality sport and life skills programmes. Not only will she be a leader on her team and in her programme, but she will be a change maker in her community and the world.