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Avoiding pitfalls in sport: Disability inclusion, gender equity and peacebuilding

Girls playing netball in Malawi
Author: Olivia Sawyer
Copyrights: United Purpose

Avoiding pitfalls in sport: Disability inclusion, gender equity and peacebuilding

Steve Harknett on the importance of ensuring that every aspect of project design contributes to the desired social goal.

In this article, I identify some of the pitfalls in sport for development and peace (SDP) in three particular areas: disability inclusion, gender equity and peacebuilding. This is based on my work over the last few years, mainly with the international NGOs United Purpose and Humanity & Inclusion.

Sport and inclusion

Sport can foster social inclusion of children and youth with disabilities, by enabling them to play and compete with non-disabled peers, reducing stigma and forming friendships. However, this is dependent on various factors, such as how the inclusive sport activity has been designed: what adaptations have been made to enable the disabled child/youth to participate meaningfully, fairly and safely?

Poorly designed games can lead to tokenism (i.e. the disabled child is a bystander and is excluded from the game) or a risk of injury. This can reinforce attitudes among their non-disabled peers that disabled children are ‘weak’ and ‘can’t play sport’, and need separate, ‘special’ sports provisions. There’s also a risk that poorly designed and planned inclusive sport creates resentment and backlash among non-disabled children, for example if the adapted sport is less fun, or if the adaptation detracts from the fairness or integrity of the game.

Sport and gender equity

There may be similar pitfalls in the use of sport to promote gender equality. Sport does indeed give opportunities for women and girls to demonstrate their skills, to challenge gender stereotypes and to show leadership, but it may also have the opposite effect. In one tournament organised by a Kenyan organisation, girls who were insufficiently trained and had poor football skills were ridiculed by local boys, which may have reinforced the negative stereotype that ‘girls can’t play football’ and ‘football is a male sport.’

Holding the tournament was probably premature, and it may have been advisable to wait until the girls had developed their sports competencies to present a more positive impression of girls’ sport. Restricting girls to ‘feminine’ sports such as netball may also reinforce societal gender stereotypes, which is not to deny the huge social and psychosocial benefits girls can gain from these sports or the strength of cultural/religious barriers that may exist that confine girls to these sports.

Sport and peace

Initiatives around the world have used sport as a vehicle for peace, for example to bring together youth from conflicting communities to foster understanding and reconciliation. An inclusive sport project I managed in Sri Lanka saw some evidence of this: disabled Tamils and Sinhalese youth who had lost limbs in the civil war fighting each other faced each other on the basketball court and volleyball court, and after the matches they joked together and began to form friendships.

However, the many associations between sport and discord/violence mustn’t be ignored. It is surprising how many sport for peace initiatives appear to be based on an almost magical ability for sport to create harmony and friendship when many examples around the world show that this clearly isn’t the case. Youth leaders in a programme I was involved with in the Gambia told me that crowd violence at football matches was so bad that organisers had abandoned using the police to keep control and instead called in the army.

There’s a case for sport for peace to focus on less competitive and more cooperative sport (including ‘sport’ in the wider sense, such as recreation and fitness), especially where a particular sport, e.g. football, is associated with communal or ethnic divisions. Design of sports programmes, for example selection and training of coaches to focus on the values of peace and fairplay, focus on friendly matches rather than high-stake tournaments which heighten competitiveness etc. is also important.

In these three areas – sport for disability inclusion, gender equality and peace – and any other area of SDP, programmers must not rely on any innate power of sport to do good, but to consider carefully during project planning, and also during monitoring and evaluation, whether every aspect of the project design contributes to the desired social goal.

Steve Harknett has worked in international development for nearly 20 years, including five years working in sport for development and peace.


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Monday, March 2, 2020 - 11:11