Changing the game, changing the narrative
This article was submitted as part of our call for reshaping the future of sport and development.
Athens Comics Library (ACL) is designed to be a place of inspiration and creation of experiences, learning and exploration, participation, creativity, and experimentation. The library believes in the healing value of comics and storytelling, an approach that has supported various communities within the years. Our work aims to hold space to share impactful stories and lived experiences, and, at the same time, encourage people to learn how to listen to someone else’s story and realise that humanity is composed of many overlapping stories.
We strongly believe that people are stories, and what is better than football for generating impactful, empowering narratives? For the past year we have been collaborating with AEK FC for the implementation of Welcome Through Football, a sports program for refugee children aged 7-11 aiming for social inclusion and the development of social skills. This program proved something we already knew – that football is an amazing platform for empowerment, entertainment, wellness and social change.
Sports participation has many benefits not only linked to increased physical fitness and mental wellbeing, but also for the acquisition of certain skills and positive outcomes, such as increased self-confidence, self-discipline, collaboration, team work, trust, honesty, self-respect, and respect for others.
Being an almost 100% female team in ACL and with half of us dreaming of playing football, we thought to expand the impact of football to women’s empowerment. During these current unprecedented times, with the global pandemic, war, and economic and political crises which are widening the gap between communities and genders, increasing women's responsibilities, women have borne the brunt of it, as the incidents of gender-based violence continue to increase. COVID-19 has only added an additional barrier to women’s voices being heard.
Last winter, in the context of FARE #FootballPeople campaign, we organised an online talk featuring women whose lives have been transformed through football. The stories were captured in a wonderful illustration by artist Yorgos Konstantinou, reminding us forever the powerful messages heard during the conversation. Shakiba Sheidi, former player of Hestia F.C. shared how “football brings you in a moment and makes you happy, and even if you are silent for any reason, when you play football, football subconsciously speaks for you.”
We also run the “Women strike again” programme, bringing together people for sports, media and culture, to lead the fight against inequality in football and use sport as a means of social change. The initiative has opened up the conversation around equality in male dominated sectors, bringing forward challenging issues such as hate speech, working conditions, and sexual abuse.
According to a 2019 research at the University of Manchester, which gathered data from 3,000 female football players from 33 countries, “a professional football career for women is hard to sustain in the face of low pay, a lack of contractual support, and commitments away from the pitch.” Adding to this the prevalence of sexual abuse, which is growing in the field of sports, one can imagine that the game has not changed.
According to Women in Football (2018) there was a staggering 397.2% increase in the number of reports of sex discrimination and harassment incidents presented in the preceding 12-month period. Social media, in particular, was pivotal for this increase. The volume of sexist incidents on social media and the offensive nature of the content continues to rise with a steep spike in the explicit and highly offensive language used.
If the situation is discouraging for equal female participation in football, the involvement of ethnic minority women and girls and girls with refugee and migrant background is even more challenging. Because girls and women may also be denied educational opportunity in some cultures, they are distanced even further from the ‘mainstream’ connections and networks that can help them feel a sense of empowerment, worth and belonging in society. Moreover, COVID-19 and the domino effect affected disproportionately some groups who already face multiple cultural and financial barriers to entry in the sports field, especially women and girls from minority and migrant backgrounds.
We strongly believe that all together we can change not only the situation, but also the narrative around equal representation and participation in football, by providing inclusive opportunities for all, seeding the love for sports from the early years and creating new role models inspiring and advocating for an equal game inside and outside the pitch field.
Dr Lida Tsene is the founder Athens Comics Library.