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Week of Action seeks to change the narrative

Copyrights: UN Women

Week of Action seeks to change the narrative

sportanddev and UNHCR’s Week of Action on sport and refugees inspired conversation and action on how sport can best support displaced women and girls.

As of the end of 2020, over 82 million people were forcibly displaced in the world, according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this crisis, disproportionately affecting women and girls.

Over the past few decades, organisations have started to use sport and play to protect and promote the rights of refugees and displaced persons, by encouraging social inclusion, social cohesion and psychosocial wellbeing. If well designed, delivered and measured, sport-based programmes can also contribute to gender equity.

However, displaced women and girls continue to be marginalised in terms of access and opportunity in sport. To highlight the issues that displaced women and girls face and advocate for sport to be used to support them, sportanddev and UNHCR launched a Week of Action, from 8 – 12 November 2021.

Webinar: Changing the Game for Good

As part of this Week of Action, on 10 November we hosted a webinar featuring policymakers, practitioners, academics and refugee athletes, to understand how displaced women and girls’ particular needs can be addressed through sport.

The webinar saw over 170 people attend from across the world. The opening comments were given by Bernadette Castel-Hollingsworth, Deputy Director of the Department of International Protection at UNHCR, who commented on the power of sport for the protection and development of displaced youth, and the work that the UNHCR is doing in this regard.

The panellists included Rose Lokonyen, a refugee athlete and two-time Olympian; Dr. Soolmaz Abooali, a refugee, scholar, athlete (14-time traditional Karate champion) and activist; and Khalida Popal, former captain and founder of the first-ever Afghan women’s national football team, an activist and the Founder-Director of Girl Power. These inspiring panellists provided their unique perspectives as refugees, as athletes and as practitioners on how sport can better serve displaced women and girls.

Rose Lokonyen narrated her journey of fleeing her native South Sudan on foot when she was 10, her life at Kakuma Refugee Camp, her experience at the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation Training Academy and her eventual rise to becoming an Olympian and the flagbearer of the first ever Refugee Olympic Team, which debuted in Rio in 2016.

“Women and girls need to be given support and encouraged, because they may be the leaders of tomorrow. One day, they can go back and rebuild their country. Being a refugee is just a status. […] To all the refugees around the world, you should never give up on life. Especially women and girls. You need to get into sport, you should go to school, you need to change the narrative. Let’s stand strong and be the leaders of tomorrow.” – Rose Lokonyen.

Khalida Popal highlighted how sport not only helped her personally, in building her self-esteem and confidence, but how it gave her a community, both in her home country of Afghanistan and her host country of Denmark. Sport also helped her mobilise resources and connections needed to help rescue her fellow Afghan teammates when the crisis in Afghanistan was unfolding earlier this year.

“Sport helped me give back to my community when I was back in Afghanistan, where women were lacking basic human rights, one of which was sport. Sport helped me rescue women in my country – it gave me a voice and a community to help my sisters in Afghanistan." – Khalida Popal.

She noted, however, that the constant narrative of refugee women and girls being powerless and victims should be changed – she stated that they should be seen as active agents of their lives, who can lead the programmes that they are part of.

Finally, Dr. Soolmaz Abooali spoke of the need to bridge the gap between academia and practice. She noted that: “We really have to acknowledge that practice informs theory. Theory can only guide us to what we can expect to find during practice. Once we are able to engage a broader group of individuals who are involved in an issue, that’s a way we can include different perspectives but also find the gaps in information.”

The panel was moderated by Marisa Schlenker of Yunus Sports Hub and Ummul Choudhury of Frontline Aid.

  • Watch a recording of the webinar here

Twitter Q&A

Following up on the conversations that started in the webinar, we hosted a Twitter Q&A with Rose Lokonyen and Katerina Salta, International Olympic Truce Centre sport for protection manager and founder of Hestia FC in Greece.

The Q&A session saw over a thousand impressions and featured a lively chat on the problems faced by displaced women and girls in accessing sport, ways to overcome these barriers, the potential impact of sport on displaced women and girls, the role of major sporting events on highlighting refugee rights, and how sport organisations can better support displaced women and girls. Rose and Katerina spoke from their various experiences, relating these broader questions to their personal journeys. There was active engagement from the audience who joined this debate, posing their own answers and questions

  • View highlights from the Twitter Q&A here

Call for articles

Finally, as part of the Week of Action, we have called upon the sportanddev community to share their practical insights and approaches on how they have used sport to support displaced women and girls.

All are encouraged to submit their articles. We particularly encourage organisations and individuals from the Global South to contribute, including refugees and/or refugee-led actors. 85% of the world’s refugee population is hosted in countries of the Global South, and we would like your perspectives.

The deadline to submit articles is 21 Novembersubmit in English or French.

Thanks to all that participated in our Week of Action – we hope to continue these important conversations on supporting refugees through sport.

sportanddev published this content as part of our partnership with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. For more information on using sport in work with refugees please visit the UNHCR website.


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Tuesday, November 16, 2021 - 10:48

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