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Gender-sensitive programming for refugee women and girls
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While using traditionally male-dominated sports like football, sport for development programs must ensure gender sensitivity to improve women’s and girls’ access and participation.

Since the sudden rise in refugees seeking asylum in Europe, many sport-based social inclusion programs have been established. Sport for development programs promote and foster the overall human security of refugees, contributing to social inclusion, social development and physical and mental well-being. In addition, sport-based programs are a tool to bring communities together and address social inequalities.

However, in traditionally male-dominated sports, there is a clear gender disparity visible in sports for development programs. Refugee women and girls are more likely to be excluded or restricted from participating in football-based programs, as the vast majority of participants in such programs are male. What are the challenges refugee women face and how can football-based programs become more gender-sensitive?

Gender disparity in football programs

There are multiple explanations for the gender disparity in football-based programs. First, conservative socio-cultural norms might restrict refugee women and girls from playing football, either because participation in sports clashes with their supportive role within the family, or because they are not expected to play football.

Second, as a result of gender socialization, women and girls tend to be less interested in participating in male-dominated sports and rather opt for sports that are more ‘socially acceptable’, or gender-typical.

Third, women and girls are interested in football, but programs are not tailored to their needs – or gender-sensitive – which prevents them from participating long-term. Furthermore, research has shown that an ‘add girls and stir’ approach is often unsuccessful and, in some cases, counter-productive in addressing gender equality. Therefore, in order to successfully increase the participation of refugee women and girls, a gender-sensitive approach is needed.

A gender-sensitive approach means understanding and recognizing that gender causes men and women to have different experiences in society, and thus within playing sports. Therefore, it is important to understand the role of gender socialization in sports. The research analyzes and discusses the role of ‘gender’ in the socialization and participation experience of female refugees in football for development programs, providing an in-depth and critical analysis of gender socialization in sports and how 'sport as a vehicle for change' impacts refugee women and girls differently than refugee men and boys.

The research

Qualitative and quantitative data was collected in collaboration with seven professional European football clubs implementing football-based programming for refugees, and one all-female refugee football team. The research analyzes and discusses three different pillars:

  1. Socialization to football, analyzing the challenges refugee women and girls face that might prevent them from playing football
  2. Socialization in football, analyzing gender socialization in both gender-mixed groups and gender-segregated groups
  3. Socialization through football, analyzing whether there are gendered differences in the outcomes of football-based programs.

Based on the findings of the research, recommendations have been drafted to improve the gender-sensitivity of football-based programs.

The findings

All interviewed clubs reported difficulty in engaging refugee women and girls. Programs that reached a 50/50 gender balance stated that this is the result of a multi-year strategy to improve gender sensitivity. Clubs reported challenges in:

  1. The refugee demographic
  2. The female 'disinterest' in football
  3. Socio-cultural gender norms.

Both the disinterest and the socio-cultural gender norms are linked to gender socialization, and therefore should be taken into account when designing a gender-sensitive approach.

The clubs identified a few different successful strategies to increase the number of women and girls, such as:

  • Creating an inclusive environment
  • Shifting the focus from competitive to non-competitive
  • Setting up parallel female-only structures
  • Using female coaches and role models.                                

As for socialization in football, the research focused on the impact of gender socialization among children, teenagers and adolescents. In all three age categories, the values ascribed to masculinity and femininity restricted female participants. As expected, the research found that mixed-gender sessions increased the acceptance towards women and girls playing football and broke down stereotypes at a young age.

However, for teenagers and adolescents, mixed-gender settings negatively impacted the participation of women and girls, due to reinforcement of gender roles. Furthermore, at an adolescent age, female participants did not necessarily challenge feminine stereotypes. Rather, they integrated feminine traits into the masculine traits ‘required’ to play football. Therefore, to increase female participation, a critical assessment should be made as to whether female participants benefit more from a mixed-gender or gender-segregated environment.

Gender disproportionally affects and limits refugee women and girls in football compared to boys and men. Gender impacts men and boys in similar ways in playing female-dominated sports. Therefore, it is important for gender-atypical sport for development programs to be gender-sensitive.

For football-based programs, the exclusion of refugee women and girls cannot be dismissed as ‘girls interested in football are simply not there’. This narrative disregards the fact that women and men are subject to different socialization processes and that women face added difficulties and challenges.

The recommendations

  • Implement a gender-sensitive recruitment strategy.

As football is an atypical gender sport, many women and girls have never considered playing football and might not recognize themselves in calls for participants. It is important to actively use female players and coaches in the recruitment strategy. Representation is key – the visibility of female role models will make women and girls more aware that the programming is also meant for them. If the demographic is an added challenge, try to expand the demographic to include women from other marginalized communities.

  • Actively address stereotypes

It is vital to address stereotypes both in the recruitment strategy as well as in the programs themselves. Programs must explain to male participants why a skills gap potentially exists. It is crucial for male participants to understand that women and girls might have fewer opportunities to develop themselves. Having female coaches as role models is a critical aspect of addressing stereotypes.                   

  • Set up parallel girls-only structures

In some cases, girls can feel less comfortable participating in mixed-gender environments. Setting up parallel girls-only structures can empower girls and give them a better platform to develop themselves. However, it is also important to have boys and girls play in a mixed-gender environment to challenge stereotypes actively. Therefore, up until the age of 15, mixed-gender sessions are encouraged.

  • Shift focus from competitive to fun or low-threshold approach

A competitive approach is more likely to reinforce ‘masculine’ stereotypes and confirm male superiority in football. This effect is undesirable for female participants, as they are more likely to be seen as ‘secondary’ team members if they do not adhere to masculine norms.

  • Review practical measures to improve accessibility for women

Listen to women and girls participating in the programs or those considering participating in the program on what practical measures are needed to overcome the challenges they face to participate. For example, possibilities to provide child care can be considered, as well as transportation or adjusting the location or time of the practice to make the sessions more accessible to women.

Gender disproportionally affects and limits refugee women and girls in football compared to boys and men. Gender impacts men and boys in similar ways in playing female-dominated sports. Therefore, it is important for gender-atypical sport for development programs to be gender-sensitive.

For football-based programs, the exclusion of refugee women and girls cannot be dismissed as ‘girls interested in football are simply not there’. This narrative disregards the fact that women and men are subject to different socialization processes and that women face added difficulties and challenges.

​​​​­­­__________________________________________________________________

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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Country
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Sport
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Sustainable Development Goals
5 - Gender equality
10 – Reduced inequalities
Target Group
Girls and women
Displaced people

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