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Worldwide barriers to women’s participation in physical activity


Worldwide barriers to women’s participation in physical activity

Women's prevention from partaking in physical activity is both a health concern, and a wider social and economic development issue.

Recognised benefits of physical activity

30 minutes of moderate daily activity is recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for good health, well-being and self-esteem. However, the WHO reports that 60% of the world’s population – the majority being women – fail to acheive this recommended exercise quota.

By studying some of the main barriers to women’s participation in sport, it becomes clear that in many parts of the world participation in sport requires challenging gender norms that ultimately prevent social and economic development.

Multiple barriers to women’s participation in sport
Barriers preventing women from participating in physical activities are equally relevant for developed and developing countries and need to be considered when trying to “get women moving”: a goal yet to be achieved in the Global North and South. 

Barriers are usually divided into three categories: 

  1. A major socio-cultural and economic barrier is the manifest idea that sport is masculine and elitist. It is a widely shared perception transmitted by men and women through traditions, beliefs and social practices. This entails that women are not meant to be competitive and their body should not be muscular. A further barrier is the false correlation between participation in sport with socially unacceptable behaviours.
  2. Practical barriers include poverty and scarcity of economic means. For women this means a lack of time, a lack of appropriate, safe and accessible infrastructure, and no adequate clothing.
  3. Knowledge barriers include the lack of awareness of the benefits of physical activity. They however also deal with the myths such as the still prominent and thoroughly false perception that sport is a potential impairment to female fertility. 

Consequently, it is not easy to encourage girls and women to participate in physical activities and programmes need to be well designed to reach this ambitious goal.

General recommendations
Changed legislations to allow sport for all and adequate infrastructures – to permit easy and safe access and privacy in changing rooms and in facilities – are two examples of how governments can support the lowering of barriers to women’s participation in sport.

Sport associations, non-governmental organisations, local initiatives as well as the private sector can also play an important role in facilitating change. Highlighting projects which set examples, supporting in-depth research on existing barriers and documenting women’s interest in sport, and claiming space for women in sport, are only some of the most obvious ideas to improve the situation. Claiming space needs to happen on the playing fields, in the working schedules and in the media.

Some thoughts from the field
According to Nova Alexander, Executive Director of Sacred Sports Foundation – a sport-based charity in the Caribbean, “Empowering women and women’s sport […] requires women to take control of the game […] (and) that the contributions, priorities and needs of women are not just considered but given priority.”

Ultimately, women are the carers of the next generation. By getting them moving, women can positively fulfil the role model function to help children avoid these problems and overcome these barriers, thus directly benefitting the next generation.


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Valentine Cailliau


Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - 10:00