The Impact of Sports on Women and Girls’ Leadership

by Joseph Divin Rugenyuza, Intern, Aspen Institute Forum on Women and Girls

In our society, it is believed that sports are for men, and not women. Most people only consider that women should be focused on taking care of their families, and not sports. Although some girls and women are in sports here in the Kakuma Refugee Camp, they face challenges that do not allow them to play. This includes, not being permitted by their parents and the bias perspectives of the community. In addition, culturally, Somalian women and girls at Kakuma Refugee Camp do not wear jerseys, shorts or trousers. Similarly, due to religion, Muslim and Christian women and girls cannot wear sports uniforms such as jerseys or shorts. Therefore, they are not allowed to play or to get involved in any sports activity.

Due to the challenges within the community, cultural beliefs, and religion, it is hard for them to fully participate in sports like men and boys. However, for further investigation about the difficulties and successes of women and girls who play sports in the camp, I met four women who shared their stories including, Keth Aguer Bul, Mariamu Suleiman, Yomjima Konyi, and Bitisho Bugoma.   

While speaking to them, I learned about the challenges, triumphs, and effects of COVID-19 on their ability to play sports. Below is a glimpse of what I captured in our conversations.  

CHALLENGES AFFECTING WOMEN AND GIRLS PARTICIPATION IN SPORTS

Community Conflict:  Women and girls are often treated differently compared to men and boys who participate in sports. For men, everyone applauds them, and gives their regards in the community. When women and girls participate in sports, the community does not show the same regard. They are given masculine names and even insulted. Bitisho Bugoma said that in her community she is called “Mugore Mugabo”, a Kirundi word meaning simply a girl who is like a man, and who cannot be married because of that. 

Cultural Beliefs:  Culturally, it is believed that sports are for boys and girls participation in sports is a “taboo”. They are expected to only engage in marriage and household chores. As a result, they are denied the chance to participate. 

Religious Beliefs Mariam Suleiman, who is a Muslim girl reflected on how she navigates her religion and family’s reaction to her desire to play. She is not allowed to wear clothes that do not cover her body, and only her brother can see her hair. “My mother could never allow me to wear shorts, neither a trouser. My mother would not let me because the coach was a man, and for her, she could not bear that in mind, not even my father”.

 IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON WOMEN AND GIRLS PARTICIPATION IN SPORTS 

For all the negative impacts that COVID-19 has caused globally, it did not leave Kakuma Refugee Camp safe, it has increased the existing challenges for women at a higher rate including:

Lack of Sports Activities: Most women in the camp, especially those who in the past have kept their bodies fit, and exercised for good health are now experiencing their weight changes due to the lack of sports activities. Since the breakout of COVID-19, all activities bringing people together have been shut down to fight the spread of the virus. Keth Aguer who was 55 Kgs before COVID-19 is now 65 KGS, and she fears that she might not be able to perform as she used to when sports resume. 

“Before the outbreak of COVID-19, women and girls were safe in their community, and they had what kept them happy, and busy, “sports”, said Keth Auer.

Unwanted Pregnancies: “Before the outbreak of COVID-19, women and girls were safe in their community, and they had what kept them happy, and busy, “sports”, said Keth Auer. But with the COVID-19 outbreak, women spend less of their time occupied with such activities, while staying home. Men and boys have taken advantage of this and as a result, there are many pregnancies in the communities to both teenage, and young women.

POSITIVE AFFECTS ON WOMEN AND GIRLS PARTICIPATION IN SPORTS 

Self-Confidence: sports in Kakuma Refugee Camp helps women and girls to trust in themselves. It gives them the feeling that they can do anything, and do anything better if they are allowed to showcase what they have, said Keth Aguer. Keth is, a 23 years old young woman from South Sudan who gained her confidence after taking a Youth Sports Facilitator Course offered by Jesuit Worldwide Learning. Among six boys, she was the only girl player. After completing her course, she created her project, a volleyball club for women and girls, where she was able to bring more girls into sports activities including the two rival tribes in her country (Nuer and Dinka) who would otherwise, not play together. Keth is also working with girls under the Lutheran World Federation as a Youth Sports Girl Representative.

Economic Opportunity: Women and girls participation in sports here in Kakuma Refugee Camp supports them to be financially independent, and confident to take care of themselves in all aspects”, said Bitisho Bugoma. Bitisho is a 22 year old young woman who has just completed her form four, and is the only girl in her family of four children. For the past two years as a paid KK Stars player, she traveled within Kenyan counties for the Kenya National Division two League where she has earned enough to take care of herself and her family financially.

Mariam, also added “The community is only developed if both men and women are actively contributing to the change happening in the community, and that change has to be positive by all means”. Mariam is a 19 year old girl, who works as a welder, and a footballer in the Starlet Football Club in order to take care of her siblings. She said if not for sports, her life would be worse because she would not be able to take care of her siblings alone. In addition to taking care of herself, she is able to economically support their needs.

Health Benefits: Generally, playing sports helps with body fitness. Yomjima Konyi, a 23 year old woman, who plays for KK Stars shared that sports helps in maintaining her shape, and staying youthful, she is a mother of two children, and is expecting another child in a few months.

As I reflect on the difficulties that women and girls on the camp face towards playing sports, I think of Tommy Lasorda’s advice that the difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a person’s determination. I continue to be inspired by the stories and self-determination of the women and girls who play and make a difference while doing it.

Joseph is a SNHU’s Global Education Movement student pursuing a Bachelor’s of Arts in Management with a concentration in Public Administration. He is the Co-Founder of InfiniteUp which is a mobile application that supports the growth of small businesses. In his free time, he likes to watch football games with his family, spend time with his family, and play football.

Cover photo credit: UN Women Grassroots Soccer by Karin Schermbrucker via Flickr

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