Violence Against Women: What's Sport Got to Do With It?

Say "violence against women" in the same sentence as the word "sport" and most people will conjure up thoughts of the Kansas City Chiefs' Jovan Belcher, South Africa's Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius or even O.J. Simpson -- each of whom have been accused of murdering a woman in instances of gender-based violence. It almost seems axiomatic these days that domestic-based violence and sport are intertwined in a toxic way, and unfortunately, it surprises no one.

What might surprise, however, is the fact that there is a growing movement that believes sport can be a powerful and positive way to combat gender-based violence. This counter-intuitive view was the focus of several presentations at the United Nations 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) -- an annual ten-day enclave currently ongoing that gathers to evaluate progress and formulate policies to promote gender equality and women's empowerment worldwide. Amid a rising tide of high-profile cases of gender violence, from India to Pakistan, South Africa to Steubenville, Ohio and Kansas City, Mo., it's no surprise that the theme of the meetings this year was violence against women.

One in three women will or has experienced gender-based violence, and this distressing trend is prevalent in every country around the world regardless of its stage in economic development. Even here in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in five women has been raped. In other countries, Ethiopia for example, as much as 70 percent of the female population has been affected by gender-based violence according a study by the World Health Organization.

As a member of the Board of Directors of Women Win, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the use of sport as a strategy to empower adolescent girls, I attended sessions last week under the auspices of the UN's CSW where governments, community leaders, academics, men, women and girls gathered to share their perspectives on the issue of gender-based violence.

The nuggets of insight emerging from these conversations demonstrate why sport can be a powerful and positive way to combat gender-based violence at individual, community and society levels.

One panel, notable because it was chaired by Irina Bokova, the top official at UNESCO, offered hard facts and anecdotes about the impact a sport-based development program for girls was making. Kalyani Subramanyam, the National Coordinator of the Goal program in India, explained how her program turned in desperation to sport after years of trying other strategies that proved ineffective in reversing gender-based violence and HIV transmission. Grasping at straws and recognizing that these women needed a different type of empowerment, Kalyani decided to use netball -- a sport that required little in the way of start-up costs or equipment and known to be a game played primarily by girls.

Her Goal program starts at the foundational level of helping girls gain basic body awareness and knowledge, and continues until they also have gained life skills to advocate for themselves and their rights. She described girls who didn't know how to jump when they first started her program, let alone have the skills to catch a ball. By the time they graduate from Goal however, they are not only playing competitive games of Netball, but are educated about their bodies, armed with strategies to protect themselves from harm and a desire to help others do the same.

Perhaps even more importantly, in a country where girls have not traditionally played sport, Kalyani has seen significant shifts in the attitudes among the players' families and the surrounding communities in regards to what girls are capable of -- simply by seeing them compete in athletics.

The voices rising in support of sport across the 57th CSW were not just from grassroots and regional development representatives. They included some of the most prominent leaders in women's development as well as major donor institutions and global corporations such as Carole Oglesby from UN Women and Payal Dalal from Standard Chartered Bank whose company played a core role in supporting the development of the Goal program described above. Susan Davis, the president of BRAC, the largest development organization in the world, was also on hand to express the support of her organization for this seemingly unorthodox approach to women's rights with the explanation that BRAC sees sport as providing an opportunity for self-empowerment and strengthening of resiliency by putting girls in touch with their 'inner resources.'

But the opportunities for transformation of gender roles do not just occur at the individual level. Ravi Verma, the Asia Director for the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), believes that sport is one of the primary cultural domains that reinforce traditional masculine roles. He believes that if girls enter this space, it could have far-reaching effects on the gender hierarchies that create a culture of acceptance for gender-based violence. In the near future, the ICRW plans to conduct new research highlighting the crucial impact of sport in transforming attitudes toward women at a societal level.

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of Title IX in 2012, Hilary Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State said that specific legislation was one of "the most consequential pieces of legislation for women" in the country's history and acknowledged the power that sport has to "liberate and open up opportunities for so many."

The problem of gender-based violence is sewn deep into the fabric of too many societies, but these leaders are coming forward with their support wisely realizing that a well-designed sport-based development program has much to offer the global effort to combat gender based violence.

At Women Win we know that sport is not a cure-all, but we also know that there are qualities inherent in sport that align with the core necessities of addressing gender-based violence at the individual, community and societal levels. Girls who gain self-esteem, body awareness and confidence through sports prove more able to protect themselves, and others, from the threat of violence.

The sad reality is that violence against women is rampant around the world and more common here in the United States than we would like to admit. With a deliberate, rights-based approach however, sport can help give girls all over the world -- from New England to New Delhi -- a chance to run, jump, throw and swim their ways into safer and more empowered futures.

In sport, as in life, our toughest competitions are won and lost by good coaching and preparation. Let's give our girls every possible opportunity to win by maintaining focus on the messages delivered about the value of sport throughout the UN's Commission on the Status of Women. We at Women Win challenge you to find and support programs in your community so that we can reframe the connection between sport and gender-based violence both here and abroad.

We look forward to the day when connecting the word sport with the phrase 'violence against women' will involve the triumph of sport-based development programs in combating domestic violence rather than the current tragic trend it now dredges up.