In communities throughout the world from Kenya to Egypt, Afghanistan to Guatemala and South Africa, the benefits of sport and physical activity have been well documented. From the reduction of chronic disease, increased self-esteem and improved academic performance, participation in sport has become an important tool for girls’ development. As these opportunities increase, communities and societies will reap the benefit of these programs which promote leadership, teamwork, self-confidence, and perseverance.
Equal access to sport programs promotes a culture in which all girls and women have the same opportunities as their male counterparts, helping to transform traditional and cultural attitudes about gender norms. A great example of this is Skateistan, Afghanistan’s first co-educational skateboarding school. In a country where three years ago girls were prevented from going to school, it is nothing short of amazing to witness young women, in their hijabs, skating half-pikes. I started thinking about the future of those young women and how the world has opened itself up to them through their participation in Skateistan where promises of hope and dreams of possibilities have replaced fear and oppression.
With the steadily increasing population of youth globally, where should we look to find our next generation of leaders? I would argue on basketball courts and soccer fields. This notion is further supported by notable leaders such as HP’s President & CEO Meg Whitman, Ambassador Susan Rice and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice who have often referenced the invaluable role sport played in their lives and personal development.
When we see young women participate in sports, gender stereotypes are immediately challenged and begin to lose their power. Girls playing soccer engage in competition and embrace their assertiveness and zeal. Placement of girls in a space previously only occupied by boys changes the perception of the role of girls and immediately enables those girls to see themselves and their cohorts differently.
Greater participation in sports by girls can result in the reduction of gender-based violence, improved academic performance, and increased leadership opportunities. Greater participation will undoubtedly lead to the emergence of new female sports stars, thereby increasing the number of female heroines and role models girls will have to emulate. It is not far-fetched to believe that the next Billie Jean King, Mia Hamm, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Althea Gibson, Maya Moore, Abby Wambach or Venus and Serena Williams could come from the developing world in a place where woman have not traditionally been seen as cultural leaders.
Let’s continue to build on the legacy of Title IX and expand its reach globally. This is not about competition and sport as a by-product of our development efforts but more about leveling the playing field and providing development opportunities to young girls, using sport as a catalyst for their social, emotional, health and educational evolution. By supporting girls’ ability to step on the court or field of play, we will develop the next generation of leaders who step off it.