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How sports can move the ball for women’s rights around the world

Copyrights: CFR

How sports can move the ball for women’s rights around the world

Mary Harvey, a former member of the U.S. national women's soccer team, and Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch discuss how sports institutions can be an important tool for expanding human rights abroad.

When Mary Harvey played on the U.S. women’s soccer team in the late 1980s, she and her team wore used jerseys, earned ten dollars a day and received a handshake for winning the FIFA World Cup in 1991. By comparison, in 1986, the men’s World Cup winners split winnings of $26 million. It wasn’t until 2007 that FIFA began awarding prize money to winners of the women’s World Cup.

In early June, Mary Harvey and Minky Worden spoke at a Council on Foreign Relations roundtable on the importance of access to sports for women and girls. Mary enjoyed an eight-year career with the U.S. women’s national soccer team, winning Olympic gold in 1996 and the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991.  In addition to being part of the recently successful North American United 2026 World Cup bid team, she is also a Department of State sports envoy.  Minky Worden, head of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, also played sports as a girl. As she put it, she’s part of the Title IX generation. It has not been all that long since women and girls have had the ability to participate in professional sports in the United States.

Participation in sports is not only an issue of equality. It also contributes to women’s personal development and self-confidence. As Mary reflected, the most critical lessons she learnt through her participation in sports include the importance of building resilience through failure and learning how to lead and perform in teams. Mary pointed to the pipeline from sports to the C-suite: a study found that over half of female C-suite executives surveyed had once played university sports.

But even in the United States, there are still barriers to women succeeding in sports. At the roundtable, Jessica Howard, a rhythmic gymnastics world champion and survivor of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse, discussed the pain of having the magic of her sport marred by abuse. She has previously written on the subject in the New York Times. And women in sports still earn considerably less than men. In the 2015 women’s World Cup, the winners brought home $2 million, compared to the $35 million awarded to the men’s winners the year previously.

Internationally, women face even more significant barriers. Until recently, women could not attend sporting events in Saudi Arabia, let alone play in them. At the roundtable, Dr. Hajar Abulfazl, former captain of the Afghanistan women’s soccer team, discussed the cultural barriers to participating in her sport and the importance of allowing girls to dream that they, too, can be anything they want to be.

Sports institutions can be a tool for expanding human rights abroad. Minky Worden discussed her work with FIFA to implement human rights standards regarding LGBTQ rights, requiring countries that participate in the World Cup to abide by a zero tolerance standard for discrimination based on sexual orientation. As FIFA takes heat for recent corruption scandals and turnover on its board, Worden argues that now is the perfect time to pressure the organisation to initiate such standards.


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Catherine Powell, Maiya Moncino / The Council on Foreign Relations


Monday, August 6, 2018 - 15:41