Before they broke down the barriers, they had to build a fence.
To say most girls in Pakistan haven’t traditionally been encouraged to become Olympic athletes is an understatement; it’s not uncommon for local cultural and religious norms to frown upon the idea of girls dabbling in physical activity in plain sight. So when the folks at Right to Play set up shop there a handful of years ago, they weren’t immediately embraced.
Still, the Toronto-based organization had its mission: To improve young lives through sport. And they also had a policy of no-compromise inclusion. If a community wants the benefits of a Right to Play program, both boys and girls are required to participate. So a fence was erected, and a plastic screen installed to keep prying eyes on the outside. And soon enough the local girls, under the supervision of an all-female coaching staff, were playing soccer in private.
Less than seven years later, what was once taboo is an accepted part of local life.
“Today there are tens of thousands of girls participating in regular activities in that area, outside in the open, everywhere, in the same community. It didn’t take that long to change things,” Johann Koss, the speed skating great who is Right to Play’s president and CEO. “The girls and the women became advocates who convinced the elders, ‘This is good for us.’ And the elders agreed because, ‘Well, the girls (that play sports) have more respect, and they’re better behaved for us.’ They saw that benefit to their society. And it opened up the opportunities.”
These sports pages, so focused on the big leagues, don’t often provide a view of the glamour-less places where kids’ games are played by kids and the goal isn’t the pros. There’s no money on the line in Pakistani girls’ soccer, or Ghanaian co-ed ultimate frisbee. And yet the stakes, Koss will tell you, are undeniably high, since the benefits — among them increased self-esteem, improved fitness, and an introduction to the concepts of leadership and teamwork — are so vital.
So on a day this newspaper rightly celebrates Canada’s wealth of elite women athletes, it’s also important to remember what Clara Hughes, the six-time Olympic medallist, was saying a while back. Though our success on the global athletic stage is inspiring, there remain many places where the opportunity for such triumph is nil.
“I’ve realized it by travelling to other countries and being involved in sport and seeing how little support and funding women get in other countries, and the lack of opportunities for young girls to get involved in sports compared to what incredible opportunities I’ve had being Canadian,” Hughes once told The Star’s Randy Starkman. “I feel like I have to give back.”
Hughes, of course, has worked with Right To Play, which recently received a $17 million influx from the Canadian International Development Agency to continue its programs in Africa, and there are others lending hands. Jennifer Heil, the freestyle skier, recently embarked on a project to help educate girls in Africa, where Pinball Clemons, the Argos legend, is heading an effort to build dozens of schools.
The list goes on, and though their projects and coordinates vary, they’re all essentially working to the same end. Kids who play sports are more likely to enroll and stay in school, for instance.
Said Irene Kpodo, a Right to Play project coordinator from Ghana, invoking a famous quotation from her late compatriot Kwegyir Aggrey: “Aggrey said, ‘If you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate a nation.’ Women bear children. Once a girl is empowered, she grows up knowing she has a responsibility to protect her children, put them in school, make sure they are not abused. In so many instances, when a girl is empowered through education, and through our sport and play programs, there is a tremendous change in a community.”
Sadly, there are still places where kids, girls in particular, have the option of neither ball nor book.
“At the elite level, you see more and more countries supporting female teams, but this remains restricted to a few lucky ones who are more talented,” said Montreal’s J.P. Marcoux, the deputy director for Right to Play in West Africa. “For the majority of women and girls, there are still relatively few opportunities to be involved.”
The hurdles aren’t only cultural and religious. In many villages in Africa, Marcoux said, there are no change rooms, say, where a girl can feel safe tugging on a pair of shorts before a workout. So Right to Play, along with building that privacy fence in Pakistan, has spent money renovating latrines in Ghana.
But for all the hurdles, Marcoux said the changes can happen quickly. He recalled a grassroots program in Liberia in which 13- to 15-year-olds played on co-ed soccer teams. The catch: Only the girls could score goals. And while there may have been some macho grumbling, the rule tweak changed perceptions.
“The next year we did the same thing. And we didn’t need to keep the rule that only girls could score — now the boys knew the girls could score, so they passed them the ball,” Marcoux said.
Such shifts in dynamics are important, and certainly Hughes can attest to the transformative power of sport. Once a parking-lot drinker and pack-a-day smoker who battled depression, no Canadian athlete, man or woman, has won more than her six Olympic medals.
“(Sport) changed my life. It really shifted the direction of my life and I believe in many ways saved me from what could have been a pretty disastrous existence,” Hughes has said. “I guess I feel like if I can give that idea to kids that can shift the direction of their life. And kids that maybe their role models or their environment they’re growing up isn’t a very good one and they’re pretty much written off, those are the kids that you never know what an idea, a vision, support is going to give them. It can totally change the direction. It did for me so I guess I believe it can for anyone . . . Letting kids know there’s so many possibilities. You just need to open your eyes, open your mind. It’s a real gift.”