Investment in Sport for Women and Girls


As preparations for the 2016 Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games pick up pace, there is need to pay particular attention to the involvement of women and girls in high performance sport. It is true that some modest successes have been recorded in the past but in my humble opinion, not much is being done to dramatically increase the involvement of women and girls at all levels of sport. 

All the talk of equality between men and women in sport, I am afraid, is just lip service. National sports authorities of Africa, and our beautiful Southern African region included, are simply not doing enough to ensure that there are African women who can effectively compete with their peers on the world stage.

Despite years of political independence and emancipation, which was hoped would translate to increasing gender equality and equity, nothing much is happening in Southern Africa. Yes , there are the few examples of individuals such  Penny Heyns, Natalie Du Toit (RSA swimming) , Amanda Coetzer (tennis) and more recently, Geraldine Pillay, Hestrie Cloete and Caster Semenya  in Athletics  but nothing much else. Other Southern African countries have one-person wonders and no concerted drives to utilise that outstanding athlete to motivate droves of other women and girls to emulate the excellent role models that are there.

This is true for Mozambique with Maria Mutola (Women’s 800m),  where one  would be forgiven for thinking that sports authorities in that country would have by now, groomed many other talented Mozambican women and girls to take over the baton of being a sporting ambassador for the country. The same applies to Botswana with Amantle Montsho (Women’s 400m) where the hugely talented athlete has no peers from her country who can deliver world-class performances.

Zimbabwean sports authorities are also guilty of being mesmerised by the prowess of Kirsty Coventry (Swimming), Cara Black (Tennis) as well as Julia Sakala, Gailey Dube and Samkeliso Moyo in athletics. Sadly, we do not seem to see any other talented youngsters coming through the ranks.

What is really happening in women and sport programmes in Southern Africa? There is a famous African adage that says, “When a fish begins to rot, it starts with the head”. Now, before somebody gets me wrong, I am not implying that Southern African sport is rotten but simply asking the question: Where are the women sports administrators, coaches, umpires and referees, leaders?  Before we talk of achieving excellence on the field of play, we need to ensure that the right support services are there.    

With regard to high-level leadership, the election last year, of Matlohang Moiloa-Ramoqopo, the President of the Lesotho National Olympic Committee (LNOC) to the position of Vice President of the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa (ANOCA) is a welcome development. It goes a long way in encouraging African women to aspire to hold positions of authority in sport.

The presence of Lydia Nsekera of Burundi as a Member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as well as FIFA and CAF Executive Board Member is also another testimony that there are capable individuals who can champion the cause for investment in programmes promoting the involvement of women and girls at all levels in sport.

Leadership is about traversing through unfamiliar and uncharted territories. Leadership is not a popularity contest but leading people where they ought to go and sometimes dragging them ,kicking and screaming to do the right things, and  not what is comfortable for them at that juncture.

In politics, Africa now has Helen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, Joyce Banda of Malawi and more recently, Catherine Samba- Panza of Central African Republic as state presidents. In addition, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma now heads the African Union (AU). Some of us, because of our love for sport, were mistaken that sport would lead the way in terms of women emancipation, empowerment and leadership. Sport is actually lagging behind other sectors.

What are the chances that we could see an African woman succeeding Issa Hayatou as CAF President?  I will leave that answer to the bookmakers and betting syndicates!

All the noble declarations and conventions on women and sport, such as the 1995 Brighton Declaration, are not worth the paper they are written on unless there are dynamic leaders who can drive the programmes. 

This applies not only to the women but to the men as well. They must play a critical role in facilitating the participation of women and girls in sport and physical recreation at all levels. The benefits to Southern Africa in terms of education, health as well as uplifting   the social status of women are so huge such that failure is not an option.

The sports industry and its related systems are very much poorer without women in influential positions. I am not advocating for reckless affirmative action programmes for women but I am of the opinion that sports authorities need to put their investment dollars in sport where their mouths are.

Modern sports science, in terms of the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) theory and practice, posits that it takes 8 to 10 years to develop a world-class athlete. Southern African women have proven beyond reasonable doubt that they are extremely talented. However, there is need to take bold steps and measures to facilitate the development of this talent so that it shines brightly for the whole world to see. 

The sports authorities have nothing to lose except their stereotyped mental chains. They have everything to gain by developing and plunging greater numbers of the region’s sports women into rigorous continental and world competition. Investment in sport for women and girls should not be an afterthought or just small change left over from the overall allocations for men and boys. Without a fundamental increase in funding, sport for women and girls will continue to be in the doldrums.

This sad situation cannot be allowed to continue.  It seriously compromises the quality of the sports systems in most of Southern Africa and the continent in general.

I have no doubt in my mind that a lot of pleasant surprises will be generated by greater investment in sport for women and girls. It is not a privilege that is extended to them by generous benefactors but it is a right, which should be appropriated by the people most affected, even if it causes some degree of discomfort to some chauvinistic and old-fashioned male sports administrators.

Arise and shine sports women of Africa. The time is now! The stage has been set and it is yours!

February 2014
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