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Breaking gender stereotypes through sports

Sports, Women, Girls, India
Copyrights: Naandi Foundation

Breaking gender stereotypes through sports

Sometimes, it is the very simple moments in sports that can have the largest impact on people’s views on gender, and what men and women can do.

Driven from within

The Naandi Foundation’s ‘Sports for Life’ programme is a girl-centred, women-driven programme in India. Through the inspiring work of 6,000 of our women sports allies, sports is offered to 150,000 girls throughout the country. One element of the programme is a series of athletics events that culminates in an annual, national level sports celebration. 

Through each stage of this 12-month journey, our women sports allies get trained to become the officials of our events. They learn to set up the venue, time races, be starters, measure jumps, record results, etc. It is their motivation and drive to learn and grow in sports that enables us to offer our programme to 150,000 girls. 

For the love of sports

At our last national event, one of the sprinting lanes was not in good condition and had to be cleared before the race.  I quickly asked one of the gentlemen standing close by to grab the broom and sweep away the large stones before the race started, in order to ensure a clean and safe area for the girls to run. After a moment of hesitation he smiled, picked up the broom and swept the track.

In India, simple daily gestures and actions can reflect the continual challenges of  gender inequality. As UNICEF states, “Wherever they live in India, girls and boys see gender inequality in their homes and communities every day.” Their daily lives are filled with cues that support unequal gender expectations. The expectation that chores and cleaning are predominantly the work of women are a constant visual cue in the home and community.

On the track that day, the gentleman was one man in a sea of women and girls. Gender norms suggest that this simple task of cleaning the lane would naturally be filled by women, but in the heat of the moment, when the race was about to begin, the priority of the sport took over. In that instant, the hundreds of women and girls present witnessed a temporary break of gender expectations.

The girls on the track had priority over these constraining stereotypes. It was only a fleeting moment, but its impact and importance will last much. It is a glimpse of and hope for a different possibility.

The importance of male allies

The movement to increase gender equality needs diverse allies to succeed. UNICEF notes, “Changing the value of girls has to include men, women and boys.” In this very simple moment, this man with his broom was indeed an ally. He was focused on the success of our sporting event, as was every woman present. They all understood it was critical that the event area was in perfect condition for the girls that were participating in the events. They deserved nothing less, and this man believed it as deeply as any of the other women present. At that moment, he also freed himself from his ingrained gender stereotypes and simply picked up the broom and swept the event area.

In this world of constant gender cues and rigid gender roles, this small act at a sporting event offers a glimpse of an exception, and challenges prevalent gender stereotypes. Though much more needs to be done globally toward gender equality, such everyday actions can work to slowly chip away at these gender constraints.

Once the pandemic stabilises in India, we look forward to returning to the sports field and continuing to empower women and girls through sports, breaking as many stereotypes as we can along the way!

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