Wednesday

20th Nov 2019

Feature

Resetting the gender balance through football

  • FIFA Women's Football World Cup Qualification 2019, Austria versus Serbia on 5 April 2018. (Photo: Granada)

Sport has long been acknowledged as a natural social leveller – once the competitors are in the arena, nothing else counts.

But sometimes 'nature' needs a nudge. Many sports, like football, have been so heavily male-dominated at every level that women and girls have battled against poor odds to be treated as equals in the game.

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As part of a package of reforms announced by FIFA in 2016, to improve the governance of football, the international body pledged to put gender equality and women's empowerment high on the agenda.

With moves including the launch of its specialised Women's Football Division, recognition for the professional status of the game, more women taking up posts in the upper echelons, and a target of doubling the number of female players to 60 million by 2026, FIFA says it's committed both to the development of the game and the "full participation of women at all levels of football governance".

Power of the game

"It's not just about getting girls to play", said FIFA's chief women's football officer, Sarai Bareman, "but about using the power of the game to effect deeper changes in society".

"In many societies today, we see women and girls marginalised or discriminated against for their gender - football has the ability to give them back that loss of confidence and power that often comes as a result of living in such a harsh reality," she said.

When she played football as a young girl, the positive benefits were felt not only in her physical strength, but in her "mental fortitude", adds Bareman, a New Zealander who played on the Samoan women's team and went on to become deputy head of the Oceania Football Confederation.

She added that, when she began working in football, she witnessed how playing, coaching and refereeing was "empowering" the women involved. Combined with legislation, education, campaigning and awareness, sport can "make a real impact," she believes.

The benefits are clear, agrees Kerry Osborn, 28, who coaches for three girls' football clubs in England. She recently established an SSE Wildcats centre which is linked to county-level team Drake FC and has received funding from the FIFA Forward programme.

Focusing exclusively on girls aged 5-11, the English Football Association has opened nearly 1,000 Wildcats centres since 2016.

"Playing football gives the girls confidence in all aspects, not just in the sport but in general life too," says Osborn.

Although there's a "long way to go", says Bareman, "huge steps" have been taken to bring about gender equality, and milestones are regularly being checked off.

Last year Esther Staubli became the first female referee to officiate a match, at a U-17 World Cup game in Kolkata. National professional women's leagues have recently been established in Colombia and Mexico, and funding from the FIFA Forward programme has been instrumental for Iceland's women's team as they bid to qualify for their first Women's World Cup in 2019.

While those moments on the big stage are crucial, vital work is being done at grassroots level to grow the game and use it for a wider purpose.

Leveraging the plaform

One example of "leveraging the platform", as Bareman describes it, was at the 2016 under-20 Women's World Cup, when FIFA worked with UN Women and civil society in Papua New Guinea to campaign to end violence against women.

Similar strategies have helped drive the success of an initiative in Kenya that was awarded second place in the 2017 FIFA Diversity Awards.

Moving The Goalposts (MTG), for example, works to improve the lives of disadvantaged girls by encouraging leadership responsibilities and organising spin-off activities such counselling and peer-led education on reproductive health.

Established in 2002 by former sports journalist Sarah Forde - who pushed editors for wider coverage of the women's game long before it was on the radar - MTG now has more than 9,000 participants.

"I didn't have any ambitions other than getting a few girls playing football and trying to link it to other aspects of life … HIV was a massive problem then, reproductive health was a big issue, and many girls were not finishing school. The idea was to get them playing football as a way of offering alternatives or helping them stay in education," says Forde, now a communications and leadership consultant.

"The leadership aspect, like training girls in coaching and refereeing, became a big thing. Girls in this set-up are extremely busy with a lot of domestic responsibilities but they had no opportunities to develop decision-making or take on responsibilities that actually gave them some power."

Empowering women through sport is the over-arching aim of most projects and was the theme of a European Parliament conference in April, at which speakers such as UEFA's head of women's football, Nadine Kessler, addressed MEPs.

EU Work Plan for Sport

FIFA works closely with the EU institutions to help shape public policy, such as taking part in European Commission expert groups on the EU Work Plan for Sport, which includes an objective to promote gender equality.

In December FIFA President Gianni Infantino met French president Emmanuel Macron over preparations for this year's U-20 Women's World Cup and the 2019 Women's World Cup, both being hosted by France. They discussed FIFA's new regulation of the transfer system, with Macron offering to talk to the other EU states about a revision of European law to accompany the change.

And by the end of 2018, the Council of Europe and FIFA aim to have signed a Memorandum of Understanding on areas of cooperation between the two organisations, on the back of FIFA's recent reforms.

Developments in the women's game are generally more advanced within the EU than in other parts of Europe and the world, says Germany-based Anja Palusevic, who travels the globe as a technical observer for FIFA and UEFA.

Players in the more developed parts of Europe are often not aware of the societal challenges their counterparts still face, she says.

"I've recently been in countries like India, Palestine, Azerbaijan, Jordan, Moldova and UAE, where people are just happy to play. In Europe we think we're so important and we're not aware of what's happening elsewhere. When too much money comes into sport it lowers the behaviour and values. But what's positive is that now, a really talented player in Europe can find a way to live from football and, at the same time, to study so after her career she can stay in the game by coaching or refereeing, or do something else. Year by year there are more opportunities," Palusevic said.

Too much money in sport lowers behaviour and values

Nurturing talent and creating role models is one of the core aims of FIFA.

FIFA, among other things, has a leadership development programme which is adding youth leadership to its repertoire this year.

"In today's football landscape there are some amazing examples of females in leadership roles that young girls can aspire to," noted Bareman.

"At a local level, there are countless women taking up coaching roles and leading young girls in football. As a young girl, when you have strong and powerful female role models around you, you are far more likely to achieve something and be successful as a woman," she said.

Paula Dear is a freelance writer and journalist

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