“I’d like others to be like me”
These were the potent and impelling words of current multi-award winning tennis player, Serena Williams as an 11-year-old aspiring athlete when asked who she would like to be like if she were a tennis player. Serena Williams is at the forefront of many inspiring female athletes and is an incredible role model to women across the world who wish to emulate the undaunted confidence, work ethic and resilience she exhibits in her industry.
For far too long, sports have been neglected in our society in favour of other fields of learning which are deemed “employable.” Sports have been and continue to be a vital form of social and cultural life. Sports are so much more than a form of expression: they reveal and embody one’s agency, socio-cultural life and generate a deeper engagement of the African peoples’ past, present and future be it locally, regionally or internationally. Sports has been a cultural activity that played an important role in Africa’s socio-historical cultural values and practices. Our grandparents, especially young girls in different African societies, were involved in their own kind of sport or physical activities. In rural areas, they would race to the river to fetch water and the one reached the well first and spilt the least water whilst drawing from the wells would emerge as the winner.
At the beginning of the year, we watched 23-year-old Nigerian footballer Asisat Oshoala being awarded the African Women’s Footballer of the Year award for the third time. Oshoala notes that “when you have this determination, and people see this determination in you, eventually they have no choice but to give you the support you need to get you where you want to go.” Oshoala recalls entering the world of sports by playing 6-aside football in an all-male team in Ikorodu, Nigeria to being named as Africa’s female footballer of the year for the third time.
Isabelle Sambou, a Senegalese freestyle wrestler and nine-time gold medalist, is changing the way female wrestling is viewed in Senegal by using her platform to encourage and empower young girls in Senegal to follow in her footsteps and reach their full potential.
These are but a few names of the women who are putting Africa on the map through their achievements in a variety of sports and have continued to pave the way for other young female athletes on the continent. It has been claimed that there is a lack of strong female athletic role models in the sports industry, particularly in African societies. But the success of female African athletes on a global platform, be it in football, swimming, or the Olympics, is enough evidence that the problem lies in the lack of exposure to these positive role models. While it is important to recognize the progress that has been made globally to date, it is necessary to point out that female participation in sport in African countries still remains a male-dominated field and there is still so much more that needs to be done.
As a young female athlete who plays soccer for one of the few all-female soccer teams in Kenya and comes from a background where sport to this day is still hegemonized by society, culture, religion and tradition, I believe that women still remain gravely underrepresented in all sports in the country. The lack of exposure in media, biased media representations of male and female sports, lack of adequate financial support and sponsorship into women’s sports, and the discrepancy in the wage gap, are just but a few of the innumerable obstacles women face in the industry that worsen the situation. These prevailing cultural ideals, practices accrediting female passivity and barriers prevent women from fully taking part in sports, despite them being the means of propulsion of social, political and economic development in Africa.
In the last Women’s Football World Cup, the total payout was 15 million USD whereas the Men’s Football World Cup was 576 million USD. Men have been involved in sports for a longer period than women and hence women are now trying to catch-up, more specifically in terms of roles or positions of leadership in sports. As of 2016, 22 women are active International Olympic Committee (IOC) members, making up only 24.4% of the members and 4 women (25%) as members of the Executive Board. This leaves us with one crucial question: what can be done differently to foster a sporting culture more conducive to the involvement of women?
Female participation in sports on the African continent is often viewed as a by-product of development, rather than a medium which can promote social inclusion and gender equality. Empowerment of women and girls as well as a means for young women in different African societies to play an intrinsic role in transforming the continent. Is sport primarily for men? The answer is a vehement No! Something that a lot of people do not realize is that sports create an enormous potency to generate social and economic change. Socially, it allows young girls and women, specifically in marginalized communities, to have possibilities they would otherwise not have had access to. In addition, the emancipatory power of sports breaks patterns that prevent women from taking part in sports in the first place by combatting the HIV pandemic, gender and sex-based violence, traditional practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM), early marriages and other social injustices. Involvement with sports is often viewed as a luxury endeavour rather than an essential foundation for developing strategies that can fuel sustainable development. Just as African women have become accomplished in fields that were once closed to them, such as science and politics, so is female engagement in sports a proxy for experiences other women have not actually lived.
There are numerous examples of resilient African sportswomen who have defied this narrative and proved that sports can be used as a tool for economic development by achieving success both on and off the pitch. One of them is Tegla Loroupe, a Kenyan long-distance runner and a three-time World Half-Marathon champion. Loroupe promotes social cohesion in her country through the “Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation” which operates a primary school for students at risk of HIV/AIDS, FGM or becoming child soldiers in local conflicts.
A number of wide-ranging problems still contribute to the elusive parity between men and women at both grassroots and elite levels in regard to sports and the issue surrounding female participation in sports. Most, if not all of these problems, are linked to cultural norms. Sports in African societies has irrefutably remained a male-dominated industry which is why there is a need to develop a paradigm shift in our perception towards it. It is of utmost importance that a sporting culture is developed which will lead to the propagation of women and girls to fully participate in sport and become future athletes, sports coaches, and leaders in the sports industry. These women will show other young African women that they too can and should push beyond the artificial limits that have been placed on their potential.
Samantha Nyakundi is a 17-year-old first-year student at the African Leadership Academy from Kenya. She is a member of the International Relations Council, Debate and Girl Up Club. Samantha is passionate about the empowerment of young women and believes that sports can be used as a tool of emancipation for girls in her community. She also believes that sports can be used to positively change the existing notions and misconceptions about gender. Samantha is an avid reader of African fiction and has a passion for writing.
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Mutuota Mutwiri, “Faith Kipyegon stuns Dibaba for Kenya’s third gold”, Citizen Digital, citizentv.co.ke/sports/faith-kipyegon-stuns-dibaba-for-kenyas-third-gold-137432/.
Huynh Carol, “Olympic Games in London”, Zimbio, http://www.zimbio.com/photos/Isabelle+Sambou/Olympics+Day+12+Wrestling/Rxb6acnDEzp.