February 15, 2012 | Culture and Media, Health and Well-Being

Beyond Ballgames: The Impact of Sport for Girls

Sport and physical activity have their own intrinsic benefits for girls, but these groups are using sport for super social impact.

Right To Play's junior leaders participate in class in Mardan, Pakistan

Right To Play's junior leaders participate in class in Mardan, Pakistan

By Anna Louie Sussman

NEW YORK CITY -- In 2003, when Right To Play first began working with local schools in the Pakistani cities of Peshawar and Quetta, it wasn’t easy to get parents’ permission to let their daughters participate in sports. Volunteer coaches and teachers called their homes to assure them their daughters would be safe. They promised to hang thick curtains of green canvas to keep away prying eyes. They explained all the potential benefits of girls’ participation in sports. No luck. Eventually, they let the results speak for themselves.

The boys who were early adopters showed better school attendance and better academic results than those who hadn’t participated. All of a sudden, parents were enthusiastic, since academic achievement is highly valued in Pakistan. Today, around half of the program’s participants are female, from schoolgirls to junior coaches to leaders and teachers.

A growing body of research has linked athletic participation with any number of benefits: better grades, higher self-esteem, life lessons of teamwork, leadership and discipline. A recent study based on data from the United States linked sports participation as a result of Title IX equality legislation directly to higher educational attainment, and a 40% rise in employment among women ages 25-34; another found a 7% decrease in obesity rates among girls who had played sports thanks to Title IX. 

“Girls have to be offered playing time, and have to have the opportunity to participate,” said Dr. Nicole LaVoi, a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport.

While Title IX banned sex discrimination at institutions that received federal funding, girls are still underrepresented in the U.S. at every level. Boys outnumber girls at the high school level five to three.

“A lot of girls don’t have access to sport,” she said.

Visionary non-profit organizations are working to increase girls’ access to sport, both in the U.S. and abroad. By combing physical activity with education and development programming, these non-profits build on the immediate and long-term benefits of sport, using it as an entry point to tackle the most pressing issues facing girls and adolescents.

In Chicago, Girls in the Game works in some of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods to bring a wide range of activities to girls whose schools and communities often lack quality sports programming. With offerings ranging from basketball and soccer to double-dutch and yoga, girls ages 6 and older are sure to find something they like. Around 70% of the more than 3,200 girls they served in 2010 are ages 9-12, a critical turning point for girls, said President Amy Skeen.

“The self-confidence and self-esteem that come from sports are key during adolescence, a time when boys’ self-esteem levels, or perhaps increases a bit, but girls’ self-esteem takes a dramatic decline,” she said. “Being involved in sports is a way to prevent that. By being physically active and challenging her body, a girl discovers she’s strong and capable, as opposed to all of those media messages that girls are bombarded with, to look a certain way or dress a certain way.”

Girls in the Game’s curriculum combines sports with multiple educational modules on topics ranging from nutrition to peer pressure, that is implemented either during an after school program, summer camp, or through its frequent clinics, workshops, and one-off events.

Women Win Executive Director Maria Bobenrieth believes that sports is unique in its universal appeal, something she knows from experience. When her family moved from Chile to the U.S. when she was eight years old, playing sports enabled her to connect with her peers, despite having an accent and feeling like the odd one out.

“Could you do the same thing with art and music? Sure. But there’s just something so fun about sport,” she said. “It’s a universal language. There’s something humanly addictive about kicking a ball around, about winning, about running and playing.”

She remained a fervent believer in the benefits of sports for girls, coaching in her off-hours during her long career in international business, including eight years overseeing Nike’s corporate philanthropy.

At Women Win, Bobenrieth helps non-profits working in girls’ and women’s rights design sports curricula that respond to local needs. Women Win works in around a dozen countries, partnering with local groups to build networks within countries and across countries. By collecting best practices and linking groups with complementary core competencies, Women Win’s seed grants go towards building capacity that’s already on the ground.

In Bobenrieth’s experience, the success of a program depends largely on how localized a program is. The partner organization should have deep roots within the community, and girls must be at the center of the program’s design.

In India, for example, Women Win partnered with the Naz Foundation, a leading grassroots organization with a focus on HIV/AIDS. Women Win brought in the commercial bank Standard Chartered to run the GOAL financial program for girls, centered around the non-contact sport of netball, which Bobenrieth described as “like basketball without dribbling.”

“Unlike countries in Africa, India is not a sporting culture, so for these girls it was their first time catching a ball or running around,” she said. “And since girls aren’t seen as economic agents or ever given money, it was often their first time counting money as well.”

As their confidence grew, the bank realized began offering more advanced trainings, such as English language skills. One of the graduates of the GOAL program is now a trainee at Standard Chartered itself.

At the same time, said Bobenrieth, the needs of adolescent girls, particularly in the marginalized or post-conflict communities in which Women Win works, often cross boundaries.

“The questions are quite universal,” she said. “Whether the girl lives in the slums of Eastern Africa or the hills of Nepal, an adolescent girl is probably negotiating and encountering many of the same social challenges.” Wherever she is, building on her sense of agency is key.

In addition to Pakistan, Right To Play works in nineteen other countries across Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East, reaching over a million children per year with the help of nearly 14,000 volunteer coaches. Senior Director of International Programs Nina Valentic agrees that girls often need help building on their inner strength to stand up for themselves within their families or their communities.

“One key issue for girls is managing relations to adults,” she said. “We create activities that bring about the understanding that girls do have a right to say no to certain types of proposals, that they need to seek a person of confidence with whom they can discuss issues of concern to them.”

Right To Play’s methodology incorporates games and a curriculum developed with pedagogical experts based on “R-C-A,” which stands for “Reflect, Connect, Apply.” Following the physical activity, girls engage in a cooldown, and then engage in the RCA discussion.

One young woman told her coaches that before she became involved with Right To Play, she feared talking back to her own brothers at home.

“Now we can talk to anyone,” she said. “We have become confident and bold.”

Valentic is already envisioning the next step, when girls and boys can play together.

“Eventually, I think the green canvas will come down.”

Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.