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Feminism, sports and development

Males and females learning cricket in Papua New Guinea
Copyrights: Pacific Sports Partnerships (Photo)

Feminism, sports and development

The role of sports in addressing gender issues and upholding gender equality can’t be underestimated and ignored.

Pull me down, I will come back stronger.

These words by Dutee Chand, India’s fastest woman and the country’s first openly queer athlete, stay with us as we think about sports, development and the future in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 global pandemic. Pandemics add an extra layer to existing inequalities, making the lives of women and girls in particular, a lot harder. Isolation, distancing and virtual are becoming the new “normal”, but at the same time norms, structures and systems that control the bodies, mobility, sexuality and reproduction of women and girls are also intensifying in different ways and forms.  As our past experience shows us, this would not cease as we shift from the pandemic to the post-pandemic period. The opportunity to reimagine the role of sports, reclaim the power of sports and rescript the relationship between sports and development, is now.

To emerge stronger from this crisis, it is necessary to acknowledge and address the inherent inequalities in sports that discriminate on the basis of body, gender, sexuality, age, ability, caste, race, tribe, location, class and religion.

Practitioners across the globe are thinking and debating on what would sport initiatives look like in the post-pandemic period? Suggestions include virtual trainings, revive collectives of young people to start playing, initiate home-sport programs, web-sports, develop online and distance learning tools and resources among many others. But, before we move in this direction, we must pause and question our own assumptions.

Do all young people including those on the margins have access to technology, phones, internet, and other resources to enable their participation? How connected are the webinars, virtual meetings and workshops to the reality of millions of girls, women and gender non-conforming people around the world for whom playing and being part of a sport is seen as a waste of time, unnecessary and harmful to their image in the community? Can every single young person be reached using a similar plan? Do families, schools and communities priortise and value the needs, interests and desires of girls and women? Is physical space readily and easily available to all girls and women to freely participate in these newly designed programs? Do families, schools and communities have the resources and the mindset to support participation of their children, girls and women in sports programs with the required infrastructure, facilities, tools etc?

Mandatory quarantines, country lockdowns, and mobility restrictions have all become part of our lives as we try to "stay in" and "stay alive." Being at home and accessing sports training or playing sports virtually is one reality, the other one being that the world will have to share public spaces once again. Through this lockdown, women and girls have once again been confined to their homes, their mobility patterns have changed, public spaces are once more being termed “unsafe” and this impacts women and girls the most. Schools are closed, social services are disrupted and movement is curtailed as families shelter in their homes. Opportunities outside the home for their education, training, work and employment, socialising, pleasure, health and other well-being needs are shrinking. Sexual and reproductive health services and rights of women, girls and gender non-conforming people are not a priority for the decision-makers. Access to sexuality education, contraceptives, safe abortion, and other SRH services remains restricted. The COVID-19 lockdown could lead to millions of unintended pregnancies if it goes on for six months, states the UNFPA.

When I come out of the house to play football in the field with my friends, I forget all the worries and tension that we have back at home. Being with my friends and playing with them makes me feel free, strong and very happy.

A young 14 year old girl from Bihar in India, once said this about her experience of being part of a sports program conducted by women rights organisations in her community. Many initiatives which used sports as a means to bring girls in public spaces, enhance their mobility and strengthen their bodily autonomy are currently suspended. Inability to connect with friends, existing collectives and support groups is further making it hard for women and girls to share their feelings, challenges and thoughts with others, impacting mental health and well-being. We remember the giggling of young girls from slum areas in Mumbai, India, rural villages from Jharkhand and Rajasthan, semi urban areas of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, walking in a group to what they always described as the only ways to feel happy, connected and empowered. Many of them would add school as a means to experience such feelings when they could get opportunities to run, kick the ball and even feel the happiness and control around their body.

Inside homes, gender roles are being reinforced with most women and girls being over burdened with household chores and care work. Women and girls globally carry out at least two and a half times more unpaid household and care work than men. With Covid 19 appearing in our lives this have intensified many fold and for many girls and young women coping up with their studies and other work along with care and support in household chores have led to neglecting their education and health. There is a surge in domestic violence, intimate partner violence, abuse and harrassment against girls and women and the surveillance and policing of their use of phones, internet, social media and technology has increased  further curbing their freedoms.

Sports has the potential and power to change many such realities, transform unequal power relations in families and communities and to offer impactful alternatives. The role of sports in addressing gender issues and upholding gender equality can’t be underestimated and ignored.

We need sports:

  • To engage with the deep-seated prejudices, norms and mindsets and challenge its very ableist, heteronormative, competitive and patriarchal nature
  • To be a process, pathway, medium and means rather than just an end in itself
  • To priortise, value and celebrate participation and collaboration
  • To learn about oursleves, our bodies, our expressions and our identities
  • To experience individual as well as collective strength and power
  • To explore and learn about leadership and mentorship
  • To build solidarity and support among young people
  • To not differentiate and discriminate based on ability, body type, hormone count, sexuality, colour and not subject only women atheletes to disproportionate checks
  • To be enabling and pleasureable for all

We need sports to recover and re-build our world together in ways that are collaborative, transformative and inclusive for all.

Madhumita Das is a gender, sexuality and rights advocate and a freelance consultant working on Program, Monitoring Evaluation & Learning with organisations in India as well as globally. Dr Das has more than 19 years of experience as a social science researcher, evaluation and program developer.

Sanjana Gaind is an activist and consultant (gender, sexuality, arts and rights). Passionate about feminism, arts, politics and activism, in last 14 years, she has worked with adolescent girls, young people and women on SRHR, feminist leadership, sex worker rights, livelihoods in the unorganised sector through arts, sports and media.


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Madhumita Das, Sanjana Gaind


Wednesday, May 20, 2020 - 10:50