Globally, adolescent girls and young women are participating in sports and physical activity more than ever before. Even in the most unlikely and resource-poor of settings, girls are eager to step onto playing fields, become part of teams, and participate. In the late 90s, the Population Council and partners began to explore what opportunities sports, a space frequently occupied by boys and men, might present to girls. The majority of the information presented drew on western experience- especially the United States– 24 years after Title IX required the removal of sex based exclusions from educational opportunities – including sports.
In September 2020, Martha Brady – currently the Director, Sexual and Reproductive Health at PATH and alumni of the Council’s adolescent girls’ work was interviewed by Judith Bruce, Director of the Adolescent Girls Community of Practice, to discuss this early adolescent girls and sports initiative in developing countries. More than two decades later, Martha reflects on the extension of a girls and sports initiative to non-Western, lower- and middle-income countries. She colorfully details how it began and the hopes put to the initiative to the test in Kenya, Egypt, and other sites. The back and forth between Martha and Judith presents a continuous cycle of iteration — try, evaluate, and try again — that categorizes the on-the ground learning which the Community of Practice promotes.
The seminal event of this initiative was the “Day of Dialogue” (June 1996), which convened an eclectic group of women business leaders, athletes, academics, funders, NGO representatives, and more together who were interested in tapping into the power of sport to build girls’ protective social and health assets and agency.
While every woman in the room, as it turned out, had a personal connection to sports and athleticism, there was a discussion about how framing around sports’ potential impact could take on a more global, and less Western, framework. On a policy level, there were some important bright spots that gave us a solid grounding upon which to build.
This story, an exemplar of Intentional Design principles, highlights sequential learning through the partnership with the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA), working in a massive informal settlement around Nairobi, Kenya. Martha describes how an existing boys’/male youth soccer program was altered in most elements of the “conventional” design. Considerations included how girls would be recruited into the program, in what hours and spaces girls could be engaged, and how to accommodate the younger siblings girls were often required to bring with them. There were also “reaches”; Martha describes efforts to establish more female leadership structures, particularly through female referees and coaches, and explores how to build up social cohesion and safety nets for the participating girls. Documentation was key and some of it new — requiring practitioner-friendly, low-resource M&E to MYSA. Among the key learnings, given the pace and impact of girls’ puberty earlier than boys, bringing with it gender-specific risks and burdens, was to focus on younger cohorts of girls (ages 10 to 14), building their assets and facilitating their regular participation.
Martha tells us more about the trial and error entailed in deciding where to conduct the program, when/how to insert sports content into a second0chance program for out-of-school girls, in what garb girls could comfortably play, and which “sports for girls” were embraced. Martha and Judith share the findings of this program’s evaluation, particularly as it changed parents, male siblings, and community members’ attitudes about girls playing sports-and occupying more social space — in a setting where constraining norms of modesty and marriageability had to be navigated.
As momentum started building around girls in sports, an increasing array of actors – public and private-sector entities, NGOs, governments, and sports federations – have been implementing programs. Among the actors are those listed here, some with whom the Adolescent Girls Community of Practice has collaborated. Martha highlights recent efforts including an update from a Council/Women Win collaboration in Kenya and productively repurposed to deal with COVID. We see the potential of purposeful sports activities to
tap girls’ energy and talent to offer shared value – serving their communities as leaders, social activists, and, in times of crisis, as first responders.
For more information on organizations doing work on the impact of sports on girls, please check out the following resources: