Girls’ Participation in Sports: What We Know and What We Need to Know – Women Deliver

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Produced by Women Deliver May 10, 2016 Martha Brady, Population Council

Girls’ Participation in Sports: What We Know and What We Need to Know


This month Canada is hosting the largest and most diverse Women’s World Cup tournament in history. With 24 teams (up from 16 in 2011), hundreds of players, and tens of thousands of fans from across the globe, the 2015 Women’s World Cup clearly illustrates the extraordinary growth in women’s sports. In addition to the expected teams from Europe, England, Canada, the United States, Japan, China, and Australia, exciting and powerful teams from low and middle income countries have been performing on this world stage. Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Ecuador, Korea, among others, have played to record crowds in stadiums throughout Canada.

Against this backdrop two weeks ago, Women Deliver convened the Girl Power in Play Symposium, gathering athletes, advocates, researchers, program managers, donors and policy makers to discuss the power of girls’ involvement in sports and to launch the Girl Power in Play advocacy campaign. The Population Council presented evidence at the symposium about the role of sports in girls’ lives and made the case for generating more rigorous research into the benefits of girls’ sports.

Globally, more girls and women are participating in sports than ever before. Even in some of the most unlikely places, girls are stepping on to playing fields, joining teams, and participating in sports in ways that were unprecedented a generation ago. How this translates into social and health benefits for girls is important to understand.

The evidence is clear that sport and physical activity provide a myriad of physical and mental health benefits. Engaging in sport and physical activity reduces the risk of chronic disease, including diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, among others. It boosts mental health by reducing stress, depression, and anxiety. These non-communicable diseases will be major contributors to morbidity and mortality globally in the decades ahead.

Perhaps equally important, sport represents a mold-breaking departure from the traditional scripts of femininity that girls are often given. Well-designed programs can begin to transform gender norms, challenge traditional roles, and break down gender stereotypes. By increasing girls’ visible, active presence in the public arena, sport can transform the way girls think about themselves and the ways their family and communities perceive them.  In short, sport can be an empowering force in girls’ lives.

But what about the many other purported benefits of participating in sports? Does it lead to improved education and professional outcomes? Does it build self-confidence, leadership, and life skills? The answer to these and other questions is: we don’t really know. The meager evidence that exists is promising. For example, we know that sport provides girls’ access to female mentors and role models, as well as an expanded network of friends, group membership, and social capital.  These connections are extremely valuable and often lacking for girls in many settings.  But more research is needed. We need to better understand what works, for which girls, under what conditions, and for which outcomes.  Such evidence is needed to inform programs and demonstrate to funders and policy makers the value of sport for girls.  While research can be costly and time-consuming, we should not forego it altogether.  We must find the “sweet spot” in terms of research rigor, timing, and priority topics to study.

As the Women’s World Cup demonstrates, the interest in women’s sports is on the rise (as are players, fans, and marketers). As the momentum grows, we need to create and deliver well-designed sport programs for girls. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is a girl’s right to play. We also need to build the evidence base about what works. Seizing this moment, and bringing out the best of what sport has to offer is a worthy goal. Let’s get more girls in the game. Let’s have more shots on goal. That’s a big idea. Big ideas supported by evidence: now that is a winning strategy for girls and women!

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