London 2012: Here come the girls
“You can say it’s like an Arab Spring for women,” says Yobes Ondieki, a Kenyan former World Champion runner, ahead of the London Olympics. After losing out to Ethiopia in the 2004 medal tables, Kenyan officials realised the winning formula was staring them in the face: the majority of Ethiopian medals at Athens were won by women. From then on, female athletes received serious investment – and in 2008, 18 year-old Pamela Jelimo took gold in the 800 metres at the Beijing Games. Although Jelimo has called for even more work and financing, Kenyan athletics is an important example of how, with the right support and opportunities, girls can outperform boys.
In many countries around the world, cultural practices discourage girls from making the most of their ability, confining them to traditional gender roles. Globally 75 million girls are not in school and every three seconds a young girl is coerced or forced into marriage. The Olympic Games should not be a place for sexism scandals, such as Australia and Japan’s decision to fly some female athletes in economy, while their male counterparts enjoyed business. They are a prime time opportunity to show girls the world over what is possible.
At London 2012 women athletes are celebrating a range of firsts. Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia is sending female competitors for the first time. Although they number only two, this means this is the very first Games in which every country is fielding women athletes. On top of this, female boxing will be shoulder-to-shoulder with male boxing, Malaysian air rifle shooter Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi will be competing while she’s eight months pregnant and female US athletes will outnumber the males. About 40 per cent of the 10,500 athletes at this year’s Olympics are female – that’s up from 1.8 percent at London 1908 and 9.5 per cent in London 1948.
This will have a ripple effect – through TV screens, radios and word of mouth. Sport can both embody and spark social change – at a world and local level. A girls’ football team in a tiny village in rural Nepal bears testament to this. Girls in the area are traditionally confined to set roles – wife, mother, homemaker. However, since the team began with the support of Plan International, the squad has grown by seven times and has won national recognition. More than a dozen local girls have gone on to become full time professional footballers.
On top of providing employment opportunities, sport also builds self-esteem – and has remarkable success as tool to help keep girls in school. Football, karate and cricket programmes in Togo, Ecuador, India and Bangladesh, have helped girls build self-confidence and encouraged them to stay in class and become champions for others. It’s also offered them time out – space to just enjoy being children, no matter where in the world they live.
When the Games begin on Friday, girls around the globe will be watching. As world class women strive for their best on an international stage, they will be setting a crucial example and benchmark for young girls. Kenyan Athletics already clearly recognises a truth not yet universally acknowledged: One of the magic ingredients of the Games is the power of girls and women.Tagged in: female athletes, forced marriage, gender, Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi, olympics, Pamela Jelimo, saudi arabia, sexism, women, Yobes Ondieki
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