Young women rising up to lead
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In Afghanistan, sports are an easy and cost-effective medium to engage the community and build leadership in women and girls.

In Afghanistan, sports programmes provide a unique opportunity for young women to develop their abilities to work together as a team, increase their confidence and grow their leadership skills. They widen the horizons and opportunities for girls by taking them to new places and expose them to different kinds of people, in addition to training them with new skills. The opportunity to participate in sports is primarily seized by the youth of country, as they are in grade school or entering university, have leisure time, and are looking to try a new activity.

In Afghanistan, women are afforded fewer opportunities for leadership in their daily life than men, as in many parts of the country they face danger if they participate outside the home. In Kabul, however, sports centres can provide a relatively safe place for women to participate in activities while staying physically and mentally healthy. The youth of Afghanistan are driving sports programming forward, and when given the opportunity to develop their leadership, they result in setting examples for the generations to come.

As in many countries around the world, women’s participation in sports declines with age and in Afghanistan, it declines particularly after marriage. This makes ensuring youth are involved in sports in Afghanistan imperative, and investing in developing leaders important, in order to have longevity of programming.

Youth and technology

The advent of social media has played a large role in facilitating and sharing the existence of grassroots programs, particularly amongst the youth. Youth are quite savvy at utilizing technology to connect, and this is where organizers, society and policy makers can provide the resources to mobilize these self-started programs. Social media plays a significant role is facilitating the organization of self-motivated young people and in designing women’s sports programs in Afghanistan.

Two participants I spoke with had organized their own sports groups, one being a roller-skating group and another a cycling club, the latter of which grew from six participants to about 150. Social media also provides the opportunity for role models to emerge which can inspire and motivate women to get involved. In my research, women spoke about how seeing other young women leaders on social media inspired them to try sports.

Challenging perceptions of gender

In Afghanistan, sports activities also enable youth with the unique opportunity for mixed participation, and for boys to see girls and women in positions of leadership. My research found that women were positively impacted when the men or boys in their community were explicitly supportive of them. By encouraging and supporting these types of programmes, women’s leadership through sports programmes can flourish. Ensuring explicit programming that takes into account opportunities to develop leadership skills is key to developing future leaders.

Another issue that arose in the research was the lack of female leadership in national sporting organizations. When women are not invited or permitted into leadership roles, this can be extremely difficult to navigate and negatively affect the women participants’ experiences. When women are not involved, it can exacerbate and contribute to problems such as abuse or corruption.

By instilling women in leadership and incorporating gender equal principles into organizations from inception, wisdom and knowledge transfer can better take place. Additionally, my experiences with sport and development have highlighted the opportunity sports can provide in peacebuilding. Again, sports provide one of the rare areas where people from different ethnic backgrounds can interact and learn about one another. In a country like Afghanistan, where tribalism is so deeply embedded, these types of peacebuilding initiatives can be cost effective and have resounding impacts on the lives of girls.

The spillover effects

Finally, leadership in sports spills over to leadership in other areas of life. Many of the girls I interviewed were extremely successful and leaders in other areas of their lives, like academia, volunteering, and entrepreneurship. Participating in and leading sports has increased their capacity for time management, concentration, and also provided them with inspiration and motivation to aspire. Supporting women’s leadership in the realm of sports is likely to lead to positive compounding effects which will increase women’s agency and develop leaders which succeed both inside and outside of sports.


Chelsea Novakowski is a researcher, whose dissertation is forthcoming. To keep up with her work, check out her website or Instagram profile.


Middle East
Does not apply
Sustainable Development Goals
5 - Gender equality
Target Group

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