Women’s involvement and empowerment through sport

A study by the World Health organisation (WHO), Girls’ Participation in Physical Activities and Sports: Benefits, Patterns, Influences and Ways Forward (R. Bailey, I. Wellard and H. Dismore, 
Centre for Physical Education and Sport Research), makes the following point, There is an international consensus that participation in physical activities can offer a great deal to individuals, communities and nations. Evidence suggests that from an early age, differences in gender-based attitudes towards and opportunities for sports and physical activities can have a significant influence on children’s participation. This may, in turn, affect later involvement in physically active lifestyles, and the social and health benefits that may result for them.
Some may suggest that we have heard this all before so why repeat it here. The fact is that we can never tire of spreading the message of the value of physical activity to the development of the human condition.
Physical activity is universal. It cuts across all boundaries – social, economic, political, gender, race, ethnicity, geography, religion and gender.
While we are aware of the messages brought to us by an increasing variety of media in respect of physical activity and sport and the immensely positive impact they can have on our well being, there is reason for us to consistently hammer away at bringing the message to the people.
In some societies, particularly the Nordic ones, a culture of physical activity exists. People are seen everywhere eagerly riding in their jackets and ties and work clothes. They take the train to the city and then ride to and from work, to and from lunch. They value fitness as a way of life.
Many people seem to associate development with the good life. This latter phenomenon translates into a largely sedentary lifestyle and a propensity towards obesity. People believe that development means no more walking to and from work. Children are increasingly led to believe that there is something radically wrong with play. Parents argue that having their children walk to and from school reflects a lower standard of living and often boast of the kinds of foods to which they expose their children and themselves.
Unfortunately there are too many countries where the issue of physical activity is a thorny one and a burden.
The recent emphasis on the number of deaths due to chronic non communicable diseases, essentially lifestyle diseases, has forced many nations to reflect seriously on the loss of human life and valuable resources to their respective development processes.
Importantly, in the face of this tragedy, we observe that there are significant differences between the way boys and girls approach and stay involved in physical activity and sport.
Girls and women in society
Over the past decade or so we have witnessed at a global level the rise of women in society. After centuries of exploitation, sexploitation, oppression and discrimination on several grounds, women have taken seriously the challenges imposed on them by mainstream society and with grim determination, forced themselves up the ladder of social mobility.
The challenges were great but never insurmountable and so it is no surprise that everywhere women have shown immense resilience and a capacity to embrace education as the single most important factor impacting change in their social, economic and political standing.
In most societies, at least in the western world, girls outnumber boys in all but the elementary school level of the education system. Girls outperform boys at every level of the education system.
The rapid rise of girls and women in educational performance has translated into a higher level of competition for places at the workplace and different social organisations, a situation that has given rise to the claim by many men that they are now at risk.
Interestingly however, for all the advancement made by girls and women in society globally they are still grossly underrepresented at the level of leadership whether at the social, political or economic level. This is a major contradiction and is the subject of numerous studies worldwide.
Reality check
In the world of sport too, evidence suggests that there has been and continues to be an increase in the participation of women in sport at the global level. However, there is a seeming paradox since at the same time, almost everywhere, girls and women and not engaging themselves in physical activity as they should and many leave sport very early in life.
One writer puts the situation thus, While participation by girls in sports has increased at all levels (Olympic, professional, college and high school, and youth) and society is more accepting than ever of female athleticism, the fact that girls continue to drop out of sports at six times the rate of boys is an indication that we still have a long way to go as a society in reaching the goal of gender equality in sports. Not only are they less likely to participate in sports once they reach adolescence but, worse, they are more likely to become sedentary, inactive “couch potatoes.” With such inactivity comes an increased risk of obesity and other health problems (Brooke De Lench).
One study conducted in Senegal (Benefice, et al (2001, cited in WHO document)
revealed high levels of physical activity amongst girls but over the three-year period of the study there was evidence of significant decline in participation. It was also found that school attendance was a significant factor in participation. Those attending schools were actually less active than those not attending.
A study conducted in the US (Cale, 1996), found generally low levels of physical activity amongst girls. 45% of sample engaged in no vigorous activity over 4 days; 30% did less than 20 minutes activity a day.
In Australia, research conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics focused on participation in physical activity amongst the population ages five through to 65. The findings revealed that males were more involved than girls in every age group. higher participation in every age group, with the difference most evident in the 12-14 &15-19 age groups.
Aaron, et al (1993) in studying physical activity amongst boys and girls aged 12 – 16 in the US, found that the boys were generally far more active than their female counterparts in every area. They also noted that boys were also more favourably disposed to engaging in the kind of rigorous exercise necessary for highly competitive sports than girls.
Interestingly, in some countries researchers have found that the general decline in engagement in physical activity occurs among males and females alike, a rather disturbing phenomenon.
A study conducted in Portugal (Guerra, et al,2001) examined physical activity rates among boys and girls aged eight to 13 years. The findings revealed that there was significant decrease in participation in physical activity across the board. However in the 8 – 9 age group girls were more active than boys. For the rest it was found that boys were more physically active.
The Caribbean is certainly not exempt from the reality identified in the several countries mentioned above.
While there is not the body of evidence on researched work in the Caribbean there is nonetheless reason to believe that our reality is not in any significant way different from what has been addressed above.
There is also the phenomenon in the Caribbean of girls being considerably underrepresented in sport.
In virtually every sport in every Caribbean country there are cries of the unwillingness of girls to take Physical Education and Sport classes and a significant decline in their numbers in sport competitions. In the majority of cases where girls showed an interest in competitive sport they tend to drop out of it around the ages of 15 – 17 years. This reality has emerged as one of the most important challenges confronting society today especially in light of the emphasis now being placed around the world on physical activity and its contribution to health and wellness.
In St Vincent and the Grenadines the Girls’ High School has had to take a serious stance in respect of a more deliberate strategy to boost participation in sport amongst its students. There have been occasions when the numbers participating in the school’s athletics competition is less that 25% of the institution’s population.
The same phenomenon occurs at several of the nation’s secondary institutions to say nothing of the tertiary institutions where getting females to participate in like pulling teeth.
While some may wish to think otherwise the reality is that our girls are rapidly restricting their involvement in physical activity, something that can come back to haunt all of Vincentian society.
Factors impacting dropout amongst girls/women
Researchers around the world have spent much time examining the possible factors that give rise to the tendency for girls and women to steer clear of physical activity despite growing information on the numerous benefits to be garnered.
Increasingly it appears that in their older years women engage in walking vigorously to keep in shape. This however does little to change the overall statistical evidence that there is significant dropout among girls and women.
Research suggests that girls start withdrawing from physical activity from as early as their sixth birthday and that this speeds up as they become more mature. There are several factors identified by researchers across the globe, which they perceive as inhibiting the continued involvement of girls in physical activity, especially sport.
The WHO study has identified the work of Sallis and categorised the factors impacting the participation of girls in physical activity into personal and environmental categories. They further used sub categories. Under personal factors they identified biological and psychological factors while under environmental factors they had social and environmental sub categories.
The factors identified as impacting girls’ participation by the WHO study were heredity, age, obesity, fitness level, motivation, perceived barriers, perceived competence, attitudes, peer group, family, culture, role models, access to facilities and information, type of activity, school and independent mobility.
We shall explore the impact of these factors on the participation of girls in physical activity in the next edition of this Column.