“Sport has huge potential to empower women and girls” — Lakshmi Puri

Remarks by UN Assistant Secretary-General and UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri at “The Value of Hosting Mega Sport Events as a Social, Economic and Environmental Sustainable Development Tool” event on 16 February, 2016.


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Secretary-General Mr. Ban Ki-Moon,
Distinguished delegates,
Colleagues and friends,

I am pleased to be part of this important discussion and I agree with the previous speakers that sport has enormous power to generate real social, economic and environmental change and contribute to sustainable development, social cohesion and even to challenge mind sets and prejudice.

Let me talk briefly about the contribution of sports to gender equality and in the context of the SDGs.

First, sport has huge potential to empower women and girls.

In many countries, it has been recognized that sport can be a force to amplify women's voices and tear down gender barriers and discrimination.  Women in sport defy the misperception that they are weak or incapable.  Every time they clear a hurdle or kick a ball, demonstrating not only physical strength, but also leadership and strategic thinking, they take a step towards gender equality.

There is good evidence that participation in sports can help break-down gender stereotypes, improve girls’ and women’s self-esteem and contribute to the development of leadership skills.

Second, women and girls continue to face discrimination in access to sports as athletes and spectators, and inequalities in professional sports, media coverage, sports media and sponsorships.

Women are far more visible in sports today than at any previous point in history.  The Olympics of the modern era started as an all-male event, with women making gradual inroads to compete in different disciplines.  As such, women competed for the first time at the 1900 Games in Paris.  Of a total of 997 athletes, 22 women competed in five sports: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrianism and golf. Incredibly enough, women were only allowed to run the marathon in the Olympics in 1988.  Also, with the addition of women’s boxing to the Olympic programme, the 2012 Games in London were the first in which women competed in all the sports featured.

Interesting to note that since 1991, any new sport seeking to join the Olympic programme must have women’s competitions.  Yet even at mega events, women still face challenges.  At the last FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2015, women were required to play on artificial turf, which is often regarded as more physically punishing than natural grass. It is impossible to imagine a men’s world cup on this type of surface.

Media attention to women´s sport in general is extremely low in comparison to men’s.  Just have a look at the sports section of The New York Times on any day of the week. Chances are there are no photos and no stories of women athletes.  That has a very negative effect in sports women’s salaries and the access to sponsorships, tournaments, leagues and the capacity of showcasing their capacity and skills.

Across professional sports, in fact, one of the most obvious and quantifiable manifestations of gender-based discrimination is that women athletes face a huge pay gap.  The total pay-out for the Women’s World Cup was 15 million United States dollars, compared with 576 million United States dollars for the last men’s World Cup — nearly 40 times more for men.  The exception is tennis, which since 2007 has awarded equal prize money at all four Grand Slam tournaments.

While sports events aim to promote values of fairness, there is also a dark side.  Violence against women and girls occurs in all countries and happens in many situations, including in relation to sports events.  Evidence from the UK suggests that domestic violence increases during world cups or when the home team loses.  Trafficking in women and children for sexual exploitation vastly increases during sporting ‘mega events’ such as the Olympics and World Cups.

Thirdly, let me point to UN Women’s work with sports organizations, especially the International Olympic Committee.

In Brazil, a joint UN Women and IOC programme works with the National Youth School Games and targets adolescents to advocate for the messages of equality and non-discrimination, non-violence, girls’ empowerment and to positive masculine traits among boys.  The programme is reaching out to girls aged 12-14, using quality sports activities to build leadership skills. It aims to foster self-esteem, support positive and healthy decisions, and help prevent gender-based violence.  The programme also engages boys and girls aged 12-17 to challenge negative gender stereotypes and be partners for positive change.

Sport is an area in which we can leverage our partnerships and engagement with different audiences to teach everyone that gender-based violence has no place in it, on or off the field, anywhere in our lives and that a future where all playing fields are truly level for all women and girls can be achieved.  During the World Cup in Brazil, UN Women launched a mobile application “Clique 180” to help women victims of violence access information and services.

Together with the UN system and as part of the Secretary-General’s UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign, UN Women promoted the distribution of stickers during the FIFA World Cup that read “The brave are not violent” to educate soccer fans about the responsibility men should take to end violence against women and to combat gender stereotypes.

UN Women has established a great partnership with the Valencia Club de Fútbol (VCF) through which we are working to change stereotypes, challenge misconceptions of masculinity and VCF is becoming a gender equality champion and mobilizing resources for UN Women’s mandate. We have been able to voice our gender equality message from a different speaker — a football club — and share the gender equality and women’s empowerment message in a new way and with an audience not necessarily familiar with our work — the football stars, players and football fans. This is UN Women’s first global partnership with a sports club and VCF is a key partner in the sports sector and industry to communicate the gender equality and women’s empowerment agenda to its particular audience while contributing to the core resources of the organization. The partnership aims to promote gender equality and features the UN Women logo on players’ jerseys, stadium banners and in the club’s social media. It also includes special matches and soccer clinics all over the world. Together we are onside for gender equality.

Fourthly, mega sport events can be used to spread messages that support the 2030 Agenda, including its messages of a world free of poverty and free of violence.

Mega sports events bring billions of people together.  These events have the potential to leave social and economic legacies.  They can contribute to universal values of equality and non-discrimination, they can empower people and challenge long-seated stereotypes. This can be done through their enormous outreach, and the visibility of role models they create.

Let us remember today Cathy Templeton, who made a name for herself in the motorcycle racing world. In 1997, she said: “I am the first ever female AMA pro hill-climb racer. I’m rather excited by all the attention I am getting because of this, but I’m also a little disappointed that it has taken so long for women to step into this position.”

And we all are disappointed and can wait no longer.

It is our challenge to ensure the achievement of gender equality in the sports world.  Mega sports events are also our opportunity to promote the values espoused in the 2030 Agenda and embodied in the 17 sustainable development goals.  

This brings us back full circle to the fact that gender equality and women’s empowerment are essential to the achievement of the SDGs.

Realizing gender equality in sports is therefore a great tool in the arsenal of sustainable development. Let sports empower all people, women and men, for a sustainable future for people and planet, our planet 50-50 by 2030 latest.

I thank you!