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Women empowerment, sports, resilience, COVID19

Using sport to empower women, strengthen social cohesion, community resilience and build peace

by Antonia Marie De Meo, Director of UNICRI


During these unprecedented times, the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting all sectors of our society, including sport. Unfortunately, recent research by the UK’s Nottingham Trent University has shown that 80% of female athletes believe that “the growth of women's sport during the pandemic has been hindered by inequalities compared with men's sport”, effectively creating an even greater “gender play gap”. From football to rugby, men’s sports have often been prioritized and restarted earlier than women’s sports.

And it is not just at an elite level that these inequalities exist. Reports state that, during the pandemic, women have had to shoulder increased family care responsibilities, which, in turn, have negatively affected their activity levels and access to sports. Because of this, UNICRI believes it is essential to plan for the present and prepare for the future to ensure that women can continue enjoying sports as the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

For UNICRI, sport is a means to promote dialogue, civic engagement, self-realization, education, community development, physical and mental well-being, and resilience, which are key factors to achieving social cohesion, justice and the rule of law. Sport is a powerful means to promote gender equality and empowerment of women and girls around the world.

This was recognized by the United Nations in its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which acknowledges the central role of sport: "Sport is an important enabler of sustainable development.”  Sport contributes to peace and development by promoting tolerance and respect. It contributes to the empowerment of women and youth.  And it positively impacts health, education, and social inclusion. In short, sport positively contributes to all aspects of human development.

In the daily work of the United Nations, we see that sport helps rebuild post-conflict societies, reunite divided communities, and assist people to recover from war-related trauma. Sport provides a platform for interaction with excluded or marginalized groups and serves as a bridge to mutual understanding, reconciliation, unity, equality, and a culture of peace.

In 2002, UNICRI launched a worldwide Programme on Major Events Security to provide technical assistance to policymakers and practitioners planning security for major events. UNICRI has provided this technical assistance to more than 70 countries worldwide, supporting them in planning the security for Olympic Games, Regional Games, FIFA World Cups, and Champion’s League finals, as well as the world and regional championships of several sport disciplines. 

Together with NGOs and civil society organizations, UNICRI has organized sporting initiatives to prevent violent extremism and the spread of radicalization in the Sahel and Maghreb regions of North Africa, where the power of sport builds resilience and social cohesion. This is crucially important work for women, given that they are often disproportionately affected by exclusion and the spread of radicalization, and the erosion of women’s rights serves as an important marker of growing extremism.

Through our partnership with the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS), in consultation with the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) and with the participation of INTERPOL on the Global Programme on Security of Major Sporting Events, and Promotion of Sport and Its Values as a Tool to Prevent Violent Extremism, we’ve met other sports figures making a difference in their countries.

For example, Suad Galow is a super star in Somalia who uses sport to change lives at a grass-roots level. She is the founder and President of the Somali Women Foundation and Chairperson of the Somali Basketball Federation. During an event taking place within the framework of the Global Programme, she shared how playing basketball gave her the opportunity to travel and experience diversity. She was shocked when she saw the impact extremist groups were having on women and girls in Somalia, who were frequently subjected to assault, harassment, rape, and threats against their families and themselves. Believing that women are the key to peace in Somalia, she used her Somali Women Foundation to create a tournament to focus attention on Somali women, helping women and girls to attend school, practice a sport, and ultimately empower them for the future.

We know that sports figures are incredibly powerful voices to advocate for peace and act as messengers of positive change across the world. Another example: the trail-blazing, four-time tennis grand slam winner Naomi Osaka, who last year chose to miss a crucial tennis match to attend Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. The next time she played on court, she used the opportunity to raise awareness, sporting face masks with the names of victims of racial injustice.

This has been a historic year of results and breaking barriers for women:   Sarah Thomas was the first woman to officiate the Super Bowl.  Two women referees, Natalie Sago and Jenna Schroeder, officiated an NBA basketball game together for the first time, and Jenna Schroeder said it made her “feminist dreams come true”, uniting her personal and professional values.

The Tokyo Olympics is expected to have almost equal representation of women and men competing for the first time in history.  In addition, the Tokyo Olympics recently appointed 12 women to its executive board, which will now have 19 women among its 45 members, or 42%. Seiko Hashimoto, the new President of the organising committee and a former Olympic bronze-medal winner in speedskating, celebrated this progress.   She said to achieve “gender equality, we believe that it is necessary to work with a sense of speed and produce solid results”.  Yes, I think we can all agree with her:  speed and results must be our guide as we strive to achieve gender equality in and through sport.  

The important representation role that women such as Suad Galow, Naomi Osaka, Natalie Sago and Jenna Schroeder play cannot be overstated. They empower women and girls across the world and inspire us to strengthen our commitment to achieving gender equality through the unique power of sport.

Today more than ever, we should each use our voices and our platforms to proclaim loudly the values of sport, especially for young women who are missing opportunities to express themselves through sport, whether due to the pandemic or other inequalities and disparities.  Highlighting women’s leadership in sport is an excellent place to start. 


Photo credits: @Alliance Football Club