Sunday, July 11, 2010

Just let them play

The Hindu, sunday magazine, July 11, 2010

The other half

Women are visible as spectators in most big sporting events but face great hurdles in their attempts to excel in sports.

Today, after a whole month of watching men kicking a ball around a field, and hearing the buzz of the Vuvuzela, the drama of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa will end. Millions of eyes that remained glued to television screens will get a rest. Emotions will settle. Life will move on, to other sports, other interests.

The FIFA World Cup is the world's most watched sporting event. This year, we are told, it has successfully drawn in an ever greater number of women viewers, over 40 per cent. Women were certainly visible as spectators, or rather the television cameras made sure that they were visible. But does a larger women's viewership of what is seen as a men's game have any relevance in the context of women and sports?

Clearly not. Because sports is not about watching others play; it is about being able to participate, to enjoy the physicality, the team spirit, the self-confidence, the exhilaration that sport imbues in the people who participate. Of course, in this media and corporate age, it has also come to represent fame, fortune and glamour.

But what draws millions of young women and men around the world to the playing field is not the prospect of money or fame as much as the sheer enjoyment and freedom that sports represents. Yet, we know only too well, that women who want to excel in sport face many hurdles. A few succeed. The more glamorous amongst them get name and fame. Others appear occasionally on our television screens and news pages and are then forgotten.

Where are the women?

In contrast, pages are devoted to men's sports and individual men who excel in sports. Looking at an average sports page, or sports coverage on our television channels, you could almost believe that women either do not play any sports, or are not interested.

Take just soccer, or football. The American team made a mark in this World Cup. But it is women who made soccer popular in the U.S. The American women's soccer team won the FIFA Women's World Cup as far back as 1999 in a spectacular match against the Chinese team.

Even in China, women have done extremely well on the football field. Not so their male counterparts, who have not yet managed to qualify for the World Cup. And in Germany, women's football is successful and they now even have professional clubs like the men.

In many countries, women's participation in sports increased because those who manage sports acknowledged that traditional gender biases work against women taking part in sports, and because of that specific steps sometimes have to be taken to encourage them to participate.

Thus, in the United States, for instance, Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education including athletics, was enacted in 1975. As a result, more women could enter institutes of higher learning on athletic scholarships. Before the law, only two per cent of women college students participated in sport. After it, by 2001, the number had jumped to 43 per cent. Similarly before Title IX, only seven per cent of girls in high school participated in sport. By 2001, 41.5 per cent were doing so.

In athletics, the Olympic Charter was amended in 2004 with the following inclusion: “The IOC encourages and supports the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures, with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women” (Rule 2, para 7, Olympic Charter). Possibly because of this specific provision, the participation of women in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 touched an all time high of 42 per cent.

Of course, gender equity in sports is not just a numbers game. The playing field can serve so many other functions. Sticking still with football, a unique experiment of bringing healing to a nation that saw the worst genocide since World War II was undertaken in Rwanda a few years ago. “Kicking for Reconciliation” is a project in which over 100 girls, both Tutsis and Hutus, have been trained to play football.

One of their trainers, a young woman called Emertha, said in an interview to Women without Borders, the organisation that initiated the project, “In football, there are no Hutus and Tutsis, there is just us, we, the team.” Passionate about football, Emertha had to overcome the questioning of her neighbours when she took to the field. They told her that this was a man's game. To which she replied, “Why? I have my legs and I use them! What's up? Do I ask you to help me? It's me who's playing and the ball is there. So let me just play.”


In fact, that is what millions of young girls around the world must be saying, “Let me just play”. In this country, we don't talk enough about women's sports. It is virtually invisible from our sports pages barring the exceptional sports woman. But should we not be looking at sporting facilities for children, including girls, in schools? Are they given adequate encouragement? Do they have role models if they really want to pursue a future in sports? Where can they go for further training? Do colleges give sports scholarships? How many girls win them? Is their percentage going up or declining? Even as we encourage girls' education, should we not be looking at sports as an integral part of education?

India is hosting the Commonwealth Games later this year. We read constantly about the infrastructure being put in place in New Delhi for it. The spanking new airport is now the envy of every major Indian city including Mumbai, which suffers the problems of making do with an incrementally improved airport. Yet will these games encourage more young Indians, women and men, to aspire to be sportspersons?

That is unlikely if even the few sports facilities that exist for young people are swallowed up by the infrastructure being built for the Commonwealth Games. As the former director of the NCERT, Krishna Kumar, wrote in this newspaper last week (The Hindu, June 28), school playgrounds in Delhi have become dumping grounds for construction material and some grounds have been taken over. Delhi schools will be closed during the Games. As a result, when children return to school, they will be forced to make up with extra classes, leaving precious little time to enjoy sports. We might have the Right to Education now, but young people still cannot assert the right to play sports. And young women cannot even dream of kicking a ball around a football field leave alone saying, “Let me just play”.

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