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The role of sport and physical activity as an enabler for gender equality, empowerment, and livelihoods
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Children playing, school afternoon, India.
Optimising sport and physical activity to accelerate gender equality should be an imperative for the way forward for India.

There has never been a more important time to optimize sport and physical activity (SAPA) to accelerate gender equality, empowerment, and women’s entrepreneurship and livelihood opportunities. From a societal perspective, the importance of SAPA is unmistakable. SAPA is a key tool to help enhance several key social and health indicators, and for attaining several of the Sustainable Development Goals.

There are challenges that exist in terms of infrastructure that limit access both in terms of physical access to SAPA related infrastructure as well as the attitudinal and behavioral aspects in society that prevent women and girls from playing a sport. At a time in India where there is a strong focus on harnessing ‘Nari Shakti’ or the power of women for India’s development to accelerate, the role of SAPA and the focus needed to avail the SAPA ecosystem especially in terms of entrepreneurship and livelihoods, is imperative. Today, viable career prospects are seen in many sports, and entrepreneurial aspirations in this space have also seen an uptick. This trend now needs to be scaled and enhanced across India through a collaborative approach that this article sets out.

Sports in India have been brought to the forefront through critical initiatives of the government. The announcement and initiatives around International Yoga Day, the Fit India movement, Khelo India, the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) and others have brought in necessary behavioural transformations, increased collaboration with private sector in meeting overall infrastructure demands and giving sports the necessary focus that is required. The performance of India in various international fora is testimony to this. Institutes that work in talent development and training have supplemented government efforts effectively especially in collaboration with TOPS.  

There is an opportunity now to also focus on gender forward participation in SAPA that should first include prioritizing the playing of a sport for young and adolescent girls, and availing the social impact benefits such as empowerment, equality and leadership, as well as better physical and mental health. Next is staying active, productive at the workplace, and healthy for women through regular exercise. Then comes the opportunity to pursue livelihoods either as sportspersons, or within the sports ecosystem. Last but significant is the contribution of SAPA to women’s entrepreneurship - through skills imbibed by playing a sport or being an entrepreneur in the growing sports and adjacent sector ecosystem verticals.

At the elite and competitive sport spectrum, India’s performance in the Asian Games and Asian Para games was excellent, finishing with 107 medals, and 111 medals respectively. A significant proportion of these medallists are women, and this is extremely encouraging from a livelihoods and societal perspective, as well as creates role models for an entire generation of sportspersons as participants or perhaps world champions. Female athletes who have achieved success in sporting disciplines can inspire and motivate other women to take up SAPA, breaking down the gender stereotypes and biases that prevent women from participating in these activities.

Another major opportunity to prioritize and showcase India’s focus on ensuring gender equality and empowerment will be our bid for the Olympics 2036, where an extensive legacy plan could include enhancing access to SAPA for women and girls, and for India to have an active and sport-forward society.

Women have historically been limited in accessing and participating in SAPA, and, as a result, from realizing the significant sporting, social, cultural, and economic returns that stem from it. Women and young girls are challenged in terms of access and participation to SAPA by a set of complex, interconnected, and mutually reinforcing challenges that require interventions at multiple levels including substantive ecosystem-level improvements and coordination across many stakeholders including communities, district, state, and national policy actors, companies and social enterprises, civil society actors, researchers, funders, and media. SAPA levels have been generally shown to decrease in women during the transition from the school and college level to the workplace. Further, changes in family such as marriage and having children are also associated with a decrease in intensity and structure of SAPA in women. The relationship between sport and gender carries with it the transformative potential of sport to challenge or alter traditional gender norms – the privileges and roles assigned to men and women by social convention. This is why being a sportsperson has given adolescent girls and women a pathway to overcome traditional challenges associated with community and social identity.

India, with its decades-long demographic dividend, is well positioned to gain significantly from an economic growth perspective. With the increase in sporting prowess, a growth plan can be formulated for the sports ecosystem along with significantly meaningful interventions to help women be entrepreneurs and derive livelihoods in a diverse number of ways, prioritising active living amongst its population. Several civil society organizations like Naandi Foundation, Pro Sport Development, Sportz Village Foundation, ELMS Foundation, Magic Bus, Slum Soccer, and others are working on-ground with a focus on promoting sports for: education, health, gender equality, youth empowerment, community development, inclusion, etc. These are excellent precedents from the sport for development movement.

Also, technology can be the horizontal enabler that can be harnessed to address critical structural barriers preventing access and participation for women and girls, and India is well placed to adapt its inclusion programmes to use technology as the primary driver. There needs to be a parallel focus on broader enabling infrastructure such as road networks, safe and affordable transportation to enhance and improve access and promote greater usage for women.

From a leadership and entrepreneurship perspective, research conducted by EY showed the role sport can play at every stage of professional women’s lives, with a survey finding that 94% of women in the C-suite played sport, 52% at a university level. Research commissioned by Visa now shows how playing in a team sport helps women entrepreneurs accelerate business growth, with those who frequently play sport far more likely to report company growth (28% to 12%) and 73% of women that participated in team sports stating the positive impact it had on business. The research also found that participation in sports led to the transferring of key skills such as stress management, mental resilience and decision making.

Efforts to promote SAPA for women must be inclusive and mindful of these intersecting identities and work towards promoting diversity and inclusion. It is important is to increase girls’ confidence and empower them to become women leaders so that they can inspire other girls in their quest for independence and a brighter future. SAPA initiatives in general need to increase focus on safeguarding and protecting women so that they can freely pursue a sport. The current limitation in career and livelihood pathways in the sports ecosystem at present, is actually a huge opportunity for us in India to prioritize. Increasingly, the ecosystem of SAPA is becoming relevant for entrepreneurial opportunities especially in the social sector. Enhancing and enabling women and girls’ participation in sport is a key public private partnership goal that is an important ecosystem building and enabling opportunity. This, from a gender equality and gender-forward perspective, is critical. There is no better time than now to have a systematic and holistic focus on ensuring that SAPA becomes an integral part of Indian society and are accessible to women as a clear policy and foundational ecosystem building imperative. Having worked on foundational aspects to build momentum, going forward we need to work on different other aspects of SAPA to ensure that the progress is maintained, and this is where the opportunity lies through a collaborative effort.

Written by: Anna Roy and Desh Gaurav Sekhri

The authors are Mission Director, Women’s Entrepreneurship Platform and Co-Founder, Sports and Society Accelerator, respectively. Views are personal.

Image: Mr Thinktank, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


DOWNLOAD The role of technology in advancing the inclusion of women and girls in sport and physical activity in India (PDF)

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All sports
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