Women in the World of Sports


Speech delivered by UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri at the panel discussion on “Leadership Views on Women in the World of Sports, at the 5th IOC World Conference on Women and Sport, Los Angeles, 17 February 2012.

[Check against delivery.]

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning to all of you. I would like to join other panellists in thanking the International Olympic Committee, the US Olympic Committee, and the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games, for organizing this important event. It is an honour to be sharing this panel with such distinguished individuals who have done so much to advance women's participation and leadership in the world of sports.

Although it is already the fifth edition of the IOC World Conference on Women and Sports, it is the first one since the creation of the organization I represent: UN Women. As you know, UN Women was created in 2010 to galvanize international efforts for the promotion of gender equality and women's empowerment.

Today UN Women is present in 75 countries to support national partners and drive greater progress for women's empowerment and gender equality. From advancing women's political participation, to expanding economic opportunities for women, to mobilizing to end violence against women and girls, to increasing women's participation in peace-building, to making sure that budgets and plans work for women, we are working to deliver on a promise: the promise of equal rights and opportunities for women and men.

A central aspect of our strategy is amplifying women's voices and increasing women's roles as leaders and advocates for change. And sport can be an important avenue to do just that.

Our Executive Director, Ms. Michelle Bachelet, often says that “any woman leader, whether of a community organization or a country, can be an agent of change. And it is so true that role models and pioneers can bring about great changes for gender equality.

I am sure that Ms. DeFrantz would agree. Through your distinguished career in rowing, followed by your various appointments within the IOC, which led you to become the first female vice-president of the IOC executive committee, you have done so much to change the perceptions of women in sports and women's leadership in the Olympic movement.

Your achievements, those of many in this room today, and those of famous sportswomen who have inspired us with their successes in the field, were made in the face of numerous barriers and gender discrimination. Not only do women continue to be perceived as being too weak for some sports, their leadership potential as sportswomen and coaches, trainers or representatives in sports institutions also continues to be overlooked.

There has been progress in recent years, notably through the IOC leadership in introducing quotas for women's representation in sports organizations. And women themselves in these structures report increased influence and participation in decision-making within the world of sports.

Yet socially accepted ways of what it means to be a man or a woman continue to play an important role in determining access and levels of participation, both in the stadium and in the structures of the sport movement itself. This is a reflection of deeply entrenched gender norms and stereotypes about masculinity and femininity: women should be gentle and caring; men should be strong and unemotional … football is for boys, dance is for girls.

These gender stereotypes are restrictive and harmful to men and women alike because they prevent individuals from fulfilling their potential and realizing their dreams. In my own country of India, women and girls find themselves doubly disadvantaged, as often not enough value is placed on sport activities for boys — let alone for girls.

Every step taken to challenge these stereotypes is one step forward in the promotion of gender equality. The very existence of female athletes, especially in sports that are traditionally not considered as “feminine, can challenge deeply embedded norms of masculine and feminine roles. This is why I was pleased to learn that women boxers will finally have the chance to fight for gold at the 2012 Olympics.

But one does not need to look only at professional sports to see the benefits of sport in changing stereotypes and promoting women's empowerment and leadership. I have recently read the story of Nassima Atker, a 15-year-old girl who took up surfing in Bangladesh. Surfing is not a typical sport in this country where men rarely go in the water unless they are fishermen, and many parents do not allow their daughters to swim after the age of 12. Yet efforts to create a local surf club have resulted in many young people becoming passionate about this sport. Just a year ago, more girls than boys belonged to the club. But as surfing gained popularity, some community leaders felt that surfing was inappropriate for women and girls. Since then, almost every female club member has dropped. Nassima is the only one left.

Today, Nassima is an outstanding surfer and has already won several local surfing contests. If she lived here in California, she could be competitive on the amateur girls surf circuit. If her potential was discovered and nurtured, Nassima could get a chance at competing internationally. She could become Bangladesh's first international surf star and maybe change some of the views about girls and sports.

Nassima's example reminds us that more investments are necessary to foster women's participation and leadership in sport. Female coaches, peer educators and sport staff offer visible proof that women and girls can excel and lead in society.

In addition to providing role models, sport can be an effective platform to provide women and girls with leadership skills they can transfer to other domains, such as civic engagement or professional life. Strength, perseverance, commitment, team spirit, solidarity, negotiation, and respect for others — these are values that are central to sports but also to the pursuit of gender equality and women's empowerment.

Sport programmes have also been successful at reducing restrictions and offering girls and women greater mobility. Sport can help reduce the social isolation that many women and girls experience, particularly those who live in poverty and are marginalized within their communities and sometimes families. A 2006 mapping in Kibera, Kenya, found that less than 2 percent of about 76,000 girls had a place they considered safe to meet friends. Through sport, women and girls can find safe places to gather, acquire new interpersonal networks, develop a sense of identity and access new opportunities, often allowing them to become more engaged in community life.

In 14 villages of Egypt, the Ishraq programme, supported by the Population Council, was established to develop girls' skills, increase their self-confidence, build their citizenship and leadership abilities and raise their expectations for the future. Girls in these communities used to look down on themselves — they had restricted mobility, limited access to education and few friends, compared to the village's boys. The programme used a mix of traditional sports games and life-skills education to address a wide range of topics, such as environmental awareness, reproductive health and violence against women. After the programme, not only did the girls' own self-perception change dramatically, but so did their families'. Girls reported greater status in the family, becoming more involved in decision-making and understanding their own rights.

As this example reminds us, a necessary precondition to empowerment and leadership is self-esteem. Sport can serve as a basis for a sense of “positive embodiment and “body confidence — a concept that goes beyond the physical fitness and also entails psychological benefits. Positive embodiment requires a lifestyle which includes self-assertion and self-care and achieving a balance between caring for oneself and caring for others.

So it is clear that the social benefits of sport are multiple and should be leveraged for sustainable development, peace and human rights, including of course gender equality and the empowerment of women.

The United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace has been mobilizing the UN system to bring the worlds of sports and development closer together. Last year, a Thematic Group on Sport and Gender was created and focuses on three strategic priority areas to enhance the use of sport for the promotion of gender equality:

  • fostering self-esteem and empowerment
  • facilitating social support and inclusion
  • providing opportunities for leadership and achievement

As we develop our programmes in the field, we at UN Women will also be looking at leveraging the opportunities that sport offers. We are already looking at expanding partnerships — with the Olympic movement, of course, but also with other sport organizations. We are in the process of discussing with FIFA how best to partner to enhance sport programmes with life-skills and empowerment components for girls and with a strong non-violence and equality curriculum for boys. We also have plans to strengthen partnerships with civil society organizations using sport as a strategy to advance women's rights.

Already, the Secretary-General's UNiTE Campaign to End Violence against Women, which UN Women coordinates on behalf of the UN system, has used sports to promote a message of respect and non-violence. The broad participation of men and boys in sport, both as athletes and spectators, is a powerful avenue to change attitudes and stereotypical behaviours.

In the context of the UNiTE campaign, many of our field offices are partnering with local sports clubs to engage men and boys in the promotion of gender equality. Last year in Brazil, men and women of the Brazilian delegation to the 5th Military World Games joined the UNiTE campaign and called on people everywhere to take the same step. More than 4,000 athletes gathered at the games in Rio de Janeiro in mid-July. Athletes and spectators at the games viewed campaign video messages, brochures and other materials distributed throughout living quarters and competition spaces.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The potential for sport to contribute to the social, economic and political empowerment of women and girls is clear and has been recognized by governments, the United Nations system, civil society, the sport movement and other actors. Now is the time to act on this recognition and bring the benefits of sport to women and girls.

I believe that sport and the pursuit of gender equality can be mutually reinforcing — through the role models they create, the values they promote, and the outreach they have and seek. They are similar in essence in their capacity to generate a dream and drive individuals to bring about change and success in their lives and in society at large.

I was struck by these words of Wilma Rudolph, the “fastest woman in the world, who has inspired all of us with her achievements in spite of adversity: “Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion. The potential for greatness lives within each of us.

I know that we can count on you in this room to be change agents and harness the power of dreams to create a better world for women and girls. It is my hope that this conference will result in a strong outcome in this direction. You can count on UN Women as a committed partner and driver for change in this effort.

Thank you.