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Protecting women in sport: The need to create safe spaces

Copyrights: Wikimedia Commons: Fanny Schertzer

Protecting women in sport: The need to create safe spaces

Andrew Parsons, President of the International Paralympic Committee, addressed the audience on the final day of the IWG Conference on Women and Sport.

As Andrew Parsons explained in a keynote address in Gaborone, Botswana, the subject of protecting women in sport has never been more widely discussed by federations. The need has also never been higher, as the recent United States gymnastics sex abuse scandal reveals. In January 2018, the former national team doctor, Larry Nassar, was convicted of abusing more than 160 girls and young women over two decades.

Like many people, Parsons would like his daughter to play sport. The physical and psychological benefits are clear. But the Nasser scandal makes him question whether he really does want her to – it took place in the United States, a supposedly safe country.

Moving to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, UK Sport recently published results of a cultural health check which showed that one in three British Olympic and Paralympic athletes have experienced or witnessed unacceptable behaviour.

If these things can happen in the US and UK, what else is going on unreported? Sporting organisations are responsible for preventing abuse. People with disabilities are statistically at greater risk of abuse than other groups and the International Paralympic Committee has launched a policy to prevent non-accidental harm. It defines seven key forms of abuse:

  1. Sexual harassment and/or abuse
  2. Financial abuse
  3. Emotional abuse
  4. Hazing (pranks or initiation activities involving forms of ridicule and humiliation)
  5. Neglect
  6. Physical abuse
  7. Child exploitation

Major scandals can be a catalyst for change, and it’s essential to ensure women can play sport safely without fear of harassment and abuse. Parsons called for three developments to ensure safe spaces are created. Firstly, there needs to be more research. We need to better understand the risk factors and aspects of organisational culture that can either facilitate or protect against abuse. Science often lags behind policy and that needs to change.

Secondly, sports organisations must take responsibility for protecting women (and others). Many don’t have adequate policies and procedures. These should be developed in collaboration with experts and civil society organisations. They should not only protect participants but also coaches, officials and others involved in sport.

Thirdly, implementation plans need to be developed. Policies are not worth the paper they are written on if they are not enforced. This must include a procedure for filing complaints and involving the police if crimes are committed. Complainants should also be offered psychological support.

We can always do more, and it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure abuse does not happen. Parsons hopes that recent developments, such as UK Sport’s recent announcement of a range of new initiatives to protect, will encourage others to follow suit.


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Sunday, May 20, 2018 - 12:58