From using football to highlight women’s rights in Africa to defying stereotypes in the Middle East through climbing Mount Everest, campaigners said sports have become an effective way for women to smash taboos to achieve greater equality.
Millions of girls globally are kept from school due to poverty or early marriage, while a third of women suffer sexual violence at some point in their life, United Nations data shows.
But increasingly women are starting to reclaim their rights and challenge obstacles to women through sports, activists told the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference on Thursday.
In Kenya, lawyer Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan has been using football since 2003 to engage women and youth to promote peace and in a campaign against female genital mutilation.
Playing football has been taboo for girls in the African nation but Adan’s group has trained some 1,500 girls in over 150 villages across the country, boosting their confidence.
“They are not just kicking the ball to score goals – they are scoring goals for life,” said Adan, adding using laws alone to fight for women’s rights did not challenge perceptions and traditions.
“Using something that is a taboo to break another taboo is the best thing we can ever do,” she said.
For Raha Moharrak, pressure from her family to marry motivated her to make history by becoming the first Saudi Arabian woman to scale Mount Everest in 2013. “When someone tells you now you are old, you need to find a guy, it’s a lot of pressure and very insulting … I am destined for more than just waiting for Prince Charming,” she said.
She joked that she picked climbing mountains as the dangers associated with the sport were “perfect” to divert her parents’ attention from pressuring her to get marry.
“I refuse to fit into the mould that everyone wants me to fit into,” said Moharrak, 31, who has climbed seven of the world’s highest mountains since.
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In the Himalayas, although nuns are traditionally expected to cook and clean, Jigme Wangchuk Lhamo and her group nicknamed the “Kung Fu nuns” have been teaching women martial arts as self-defence and a form of empowerment. Wangchuk, from an age-old Buddhist sect based mainly in India and Nepal, said kung fu gives women confidence to tackle sexual violence which is a major concern in India where government figures showed in 2015 there were four rapes an hour.
“People tell us we should sit and pray and yeah, we do that. But our job is to better society,” the 19-year-old nun said.
“Our duty is to help others. I am a daughter, a sister, a woman, as well as a nun.”