The power of sport in promoting peace and reaching development objectives has often been ignored and disrespected through history. Yet, it has been recognized by the United Nations as a fundamental right and as a critical tool to achieve the Global Goals. In 1978, UNESCO described sport and physical education as a “fundamental right for all”. However, all sports and physical activities are world widely still fueled by gender stereotypes that put barriers to girl’s and woman’s participation in sport.
Barriers to girls’ and women’s participation in sports
The main stereotypes often used to prevent women from playing sports are their physical abilities and their social roles. Sport is a male dominated arena. Traditions, cultures, social norms, education, and even the media tend to reinforce this unequal situation.
Cambodia makes no exception. Access to sport is extremely limited for girls whether as a hobby or professionally. The society is still largely conservative, girls and women are asked to behave “femininely”. They are prevented from participating in any kind of physical activities as it is seen to be only for man. A lot of people also still think that playing sport can reduce the chances for a girl to get married as the practice of a sport is believed to make a girl get bigger, more muscled, and that it will potentially darken her skin (outside sport). Some people even believe that it can damage a girl’s virginity. Finally sport develop one’s self esteem and confidence but also it develops one’s ability to take decision and be autonomous, qualities that are not always valued for girls and women in Cambodia.
Too many female athletes are still on the sidelines
In Cambodia, only about 20 percent of elite athletes are women and less than 10 percent of sports management roles are leaded by women. In 2023 Cambodia will host for the first time the Southeast Asian Games, and for this occasion the government has promised to increase the number of women and girls in elite and recreational sports by 60 percent.
Despite the initiative of the government, the participation of girls and women in sports faces a multitude of obstacles that take their origins in the misogynic conception of the role of girls and women in the Cambodian society.
The value placed on women’s sport is often lower than for men’s sport. They have less resources, they are unequally paid and misrepresented. Medias are critical tools to shape people’s mindset. Sadly women are considerably marginalized in those and when women’s sport is presented in the media it’s often in a way that reinforces gender stereotypes. Those facts are not exclusive to Cambodia, but represent a global problem that need to be addressed commonly.
Harnessing the power of sport to promote gender equality and empower girls and women
Sporting activities, by their very nature, foster one’s self-confidence and self-esteem and develop one’s capabilities of leadership. However, in the Cambodian society, girls and women are still largely taught to demonstrate moral virtue, polite and timid manners and absolute subservience to men (See article Chbab Srey). Therefore, the participation of women and girls in sport is not encouraged, yet, it’s a critical mean to challenge gender stereotypes and discrimination.
Sport can be a powerful vehicle to address social issues and to promote, for instance, gender equality and the empowerment of girls and women. Reaching for an equal representation in the sport sector is an essential battle for each society, but sport as to be seen also as a critical mean to promote gender equality. It is crucial to harness the potential of sport for social empowerment of girls and women, in Cambodia and in the world. Given that sport was traditionally a male domain, the participation of girls and women in sport challenges a multitude of gender stereotypes, not only those related to physical abilities but also those regarding women’s role in the society.
Additionally, one aspect of sport that is often ignored, and not yet exploited enough, is its power to bring together communities and break down discrimination and stereotypes. By encouraging girls and boys to play sport together, gender discrimination can be addressed more efficiently and both gender can learn to interact, tolerate and respect each other. Gender equality cannot be achieved without the understanding and involvement of boys and men.
Gender, sport and development
Enhancing girls and women’s participation in sports is crucial for the development of a country like Cambodia. Through sport, girls and women learn important skills values such as teamwork, negotiation, leadership, communication and respect for others. By playing sport, girls and women gain self-esteem and self-confidence. It is also proven than playing sport increase girls engagement at school and community life.
By directly challenging misconceptions about women’s capabilities, sport help to reduce discrimination and broaden the role prescribed to women. Increasing women leadership position in sport can also influence social attitudes towards women’s capabilities as leaders and decision makers. Women and girls who played sport are more likely to move up the leadership and social ladder and thus contribute to the economic growth of their country.
Eventually, sport activities can be a valuable channel to strengthen women’s and girls’ capabilities and provide information on important social issues such as health, HIV/AIDS and women’s rights (See article Kimleang). Playing sport and learning life skills give girls and women a greater awareness and understanding of their bodies and a great sense of ownership and respect that will consequently prevent them from falling into social negative patterns.
Cambodian women are marking their entry in the sport field with victories
Cambodia is slowly opening the access to sport activities to girls and women. Recent victories of Cambodian women in the sport field has undeniably help the society to reconsider the participation of girls and women in sport. In 2014, Sorn Seavmey became the first Cambodian — man or woman — to win a gold medal at the Asian Games. Seavmey, who won gold in taekwondo, is a role model and helping to attract girls to sports.
Those successful sportswomen may have won medals but more importantly they have won the respect of their people and have opened the path for other girls and women who wished to play sport. They have become role models and mentor that influence and encourage other girls and women to participate in sport and empower themselves.
“Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. […]. It laughs in the face of all kind of discrimination” – Nelson Mandela
Thomson Reuters, Cambodia looks to ignite female sports culture, 2015 – http://news.trust.org//item/20150216103607-pefv0
Phnom Penh Post, Special unit aims to boost female participation in sport, 2015 – http://m.phnompenhpost.com/sport/special-unit-aims-boost-female-participation-sport
Sportanddev – https://www.sportanddev.org/en
Office on Sport for Development and Peace – https://un.org/sport/content/why-sport/overview
Hancock M, Lyras A, Ha JP. Sport for Development programmes for girls and women: a global assessment. Journal of Sport for Development. 2013; 1(1):15-24 – https://jsfd.org/2013/04/11/sport-for-development-programmes-for-girls-and-women-a-global-assessment/