Empowering Women in Sports: A Focus on Representation and Access


Women and girls are not sufficiently represented in various aspects of life, including in educational positions, legal, political, social activities, leave alone sports (Hancock, Lyras, and Ha, 2013). The United Nations proposes that international and national agencies should provide equal access in all aspects of life, including sports. It is believed that sport is also important in promoting mental and physical health, skill development, self-esteem and social integration (Hancock, Lyras, and Ha, 2013).

The International Charter of Physical Education and Sport was adopted in 1978 by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, UNESCO (Hancock, Lyras, and Ha, 2013). This later came to be termed the UNESCO Charter and was adopted based on or guided by the Human Rights Universal Declaration (Hancock, Lyras, and Ha, 2013). This charter has helped to promote the use of sports as a means of achieving lifelong education and meeting social needs with the help of sport programs, sporting facilities and coaches. International and National governing bodies have been encouraged to enhance a global participation in sport and physical activity believing that sport can be the common language that can help to promote friendship, respect and peace (llison et al., 2017). UNESCO has identified sports and physical activity as a human right for everybody regardless of their gender or difference (llison et al., 2017).


However, historically women and girls in nations globally have not fully experienced unlimited access to sport opportunities (Zipp, Smith and Darnell, 2019). Women and girls have been denied the emotional, relational, social and physical benefits associated with sports. This inability to take part in physical activity and sport seen to hinder development and place women and girls on a weaker position in physical, educational, legal, economic, political and social issues (Sport IWGoWa. 2012).

Several organizations have been developed to help identify this imbalance of girls and women’s engagement in physical activities and sports and how it affects their lives. An example of such organisations is the International Working Group on Women and Sport (Sport IWGoWa. 2012). In this organisation, 280 delegates conferenced in a 1994 World Conference, representing 82 countries to discuss and find ways to increase women’s participation in sports. This conference led to what is known as the Brighton Declaration (Matthews, 2021).

The Brighton Declaration targeted ensuring that all women and girls get affordable chances to take part in sport by establishing supportive and safe environments. It also seek to increase their involvement in all functions and levels of sports, validate the experiences, values and knowledge of girls and women’s contribution to sport development, recognise girls and women sport to develop role models and build healthy nations, and to encourage intrinsic sport values and its influence on personal development (Matthews, 2021). Through this declaration, governing institutions and bodies were requested to implement sports that comply with the values of equality according to the UNESCO Charter recommendations (Matthews, 2021).

The effect of the Brighton Declaration happened immediately with more than 200 international and national organizations adopting it (Matthews, 2021). One of the largest organization that adopted this declaration is the International Olympic Committee (Uhlenbrock and Meier, 2018). Being a preeminent sports firm globally, it quickly created a women’s working group and established targets for their membership on Olympic Committees (Uhlenbrock and Meier, 2018). This organisation also updated its Olympic Charter to add women to its sports programs for Olympic Games. It also created seminars to discuss women sports all over the world (Uhlenbrock and Meier, 2018).

Taking advantage of the momentum developed through the Brighton Declaration, the Windhoek Call for Action was started in 1998 to emphasise the need to have equal opportunities for women and girls in sports (Hancock, Lyras and Ha, 2013). The call reinforced the Brighton Declaration and encouraged practitioners and policymakers to contribute to girls and women’s sport development and empowerment. This call emphasised greater coordination and cooperation between international and national governing agencies and bodies. The call also stressed the importance of sensitivity and respect to difference through increased awareness of the desires and needs of women and by understanding the problems to development across the world (Uhlenbrock and Meier, 2018). The Windhoek Call for Action added an educational aspect for using sports to contribute to the empowerment and development of girls and women (Zipp, Smith and Darnell, 2019). The actions and awareness created led to far-reaching cultural, political, and social implications for girls and women’s participation in sports globally.

For instance, the United Nations created the Millennium Development goals in 2000 to eradicate disease, hunger, poverty and increase gender equality, environmental sustainability, education, health and wellness (van der Werf, Bonfigli and Hruba, 2017). UNESCO, governing agencies and bodies and the United Nations, through the Millennium Development goals, encouraged the use of sports promote human rights and gender equity. This was done by creating initiatives of educational partnership (Schreiner, Mayer and Kastrup, 2021).

Using the United Nation’s sports for development theory framework and objectives, this research identified some programs used for the development of women and girls. Besides identifying the programs, the intended impacts and objectives are also identified, looking into policies supporting women and girls to participate in sports.

The research questions in this paper included:

1. What sport programs exist to support women and girls?

2. What activities and sports are used?

3. What objectives or impacts are intended?

Literature Review

Sports and physical activity as a method of development

Socially and culturally, sports and physical activities are dualistic in the sense that it can divide countries and people by promoting nationalism, violence, drug abuse, discrimination, and racism (Lyras, 2012). Nevertheless, evidence also suggests that sports and physical activities can act as a means of achieving social change using values of human rights, justice and democracy (Lyras and Peachey, 2011). Sport has the ability to help resolve or deal with social problems like poverty, gender inequities, and inter-ethnic conflict and education deficiencies (Harvey, Horne, and Safai, 2009). Practitioners and policy-makers are advocating for physical, psychological and social benefits that can be achieved through sport, particularly those that are vital for the development of women and girls (Hancock, Lyras and Ha, 2013).

According to Jones and Jones, (2002), sport reduces anxiety and stress, as well as encourages physical fitness to keep weight in check. It also creates opportunities for social interaction beyond individuals’ family networks (Giulianotti, 2011). Tracy and Erkut (2002) also suggests that sports enhances a person’s self-esteem and confidence by improving participants’ body image. Through sport, women and girls can develop negotiation and leadership skills to serve as peer leaders. Additionally, recreational and sport activities promote education, thereby empowering women and girls (Sugden, 2006).

The theory of sport for development

This theory explores the procedures and attributes that increase efficiency in the creation, management, effectiveness, management and assessment of different educational sport activities and programs (Lyras and Peachey, 2011). This theory was specifically started to find the gap between practice and theory with the help of scientific procedures to evaluate three sport components, including outcomes, processes and contents of established sport development programs (Thibault, 2009).

Content here refers to forms of sport, team or individual, and the education themes being passed, for instance, environmental awareness, conflict resolution, relationship building and health (Webb, 2019). Webb (2019) suggests that sport activities must be interactive, engaging and fun. It has identified sports as a means of building and promoting social integration and tolerance and has to reflect the cultural needs to reach sustainable participation (Webb, 2019). Evidence suggests that identifying contents of a sport program is important because it provides researchers with certain information concerning the concerns and needs of women and girls and helps practitioners to create relevant educational information that meets participants’ needs. Moreover, demographic information helps policymakers and researchers to determine the programs that promote the goals of equity and sustainable social growth (Webb, 2019).

Process, on the other hand, assesses organization structures such as program practices and agenda, staffing structure and policies associated with sport program activities (Lyras and Peachey, 2011). According to Zipp, Smith and Darnell (2019), implementing sustainable sport programs that encourage gender equity needs considering certain socioeconomic and socio-cultural parameters like control over and access to resources, gender roles and power dynamics. Training coaches and instructors is key in ensuring healthy and safe educational environments for girls and women and helps during program implementation (Webb, 2019). Further, the programs need to connect stakeholders (health practitioners, financial sponsors and community organizations) to offer updated and useful educational information. Linking up with stakeholders also provides new ideas and additional resources that can help develop the programs further (Webb, 2019).

The theory of sport for development suggests that process and content should help to achieve organizational change, use problem-based learning, and transfer knowledge through community-based action (Lyras and Peachey, 2011). An example is the Three (3) Sisters Adventure Trekking that was started in 1999 to enhance the lives of Nepal girls and women who are disadvantaged (Clark, 2010). This non-profit firm offers instruction and training to women who are trained and can be employed as trail guides and porters for tourists wishing to visit the Himalayas. Many women who have gone through this program have been able to earn income for the first time in their lives and improve their lives quality.

Sports for Development theory-based programs are needed to use short and long-term evaluation and monitoring to assess the outcomes and impact of the various educational sport activities done across spaces and time (Lyras and Peachey, 2011). Outcomes that are evidence-based are vital in adjusting and creating program curricula, policy and for used in processes of decision-making. Additionally, measuring and defining outcomes are critical to ensuring that sport programs are meeting their intended impacts and objectives to women and girls. According to Brooke (2020), the framework outlined in this theory helps ensure that, sports are established as social practices that can be adjusted and reproduced later. The authors claim that accurate measures are necessary to ensure that sports programs have intended goals and impacts and show how the programs can change. This theory serves as a model offers clear assessment objectives that can later be explored in the context of sport for development initiatives (Brooke, 2020). Identifying sport for development initiatives for women and girls with the right objectives yields the right information that can led to best practices in current programs and in the future initiatives (Brooke, 2020).

The many policies and emerging policies supporting women and girls to engage in sport is a positive step toward achieving gender equity and meeting different goals of Millennium Development (Hancock, Lyras and Ha, 2013). Despite the excess of different humanitarian efforts, the application and effectiveness of international and national policies, as well as sport for development initiatives are still weak and there are numerous issues about gender discrimination around the world. Determining different sports for development initiatives that exist and how they are delivered is key in creating a vivid picture about the issues and concerns of women engaging in sports globally. It also helps policymakers, practitioners and researcher on how policy informs practice. It also helps to identify the potential and current barriers for the implementation of sport programs for women and girls and provides insight concerning evidence-based practice and how it influences policy (Hancock, Lyras and Ha, 2013). In fact, Hancock, Lyras and Ha (2013) suggests that one of the global initiatives for sport for development programs is to increase gender equality and inclusion in this area.


In this research, data was collected from internet databases, including Ashoka-Game Changers, Ashoka-Sports for a Better World, the International Platform for Sport and Development and Beyond Sport. The databases provided sport for development programs collection provided for purposes of information sharing and in recognition of awards received by initiatives like Ashok and Beyond Sport. More than 1033 development programs were yielded by the databases with only about 440 or 42.5% being for women and girls. The research used content analysis to assess the sport for development trends globally. This content analysis approach is one that employs sense-making and qualitative information or data reduction approaches to identify meanings and core-consistencies in a mass of qualitative material (Labudde, Delaney and Patton, 2002).

Some of the variables examined include activities and sports, target group, intended impacts and program objectives. The data were examined inductively and deductively. Intended impacts and program objectives were coded deductively based on the Group’s (Sport for Development and Peace International Working Group) guidelines. According the Group, a sport activity is highly beneficial if it leads to individual development (skill development and self-efficacy), promotes disease prevention or good health, increases gender equality, emphasises social integration or social capital development and increases conflict resolution or prevention and builds peace (Beutler, 2008). Additionally, The Group believes that a sport activity is beneficial if it leads to economic development, trauma relief and social mobilization and communication (Beutler, 2008).

Calip, Green, Taks and Misener (2017) also believe that sport for development programs are looked at based on how they act as vehicles to deliver social inclusion, act as a hook or create diversion. The author claims that social inclusion programs are those designed for certain populations to enhance participation in social activities and increase participant diversity in the given sport. The author also claims that as diversion programs, the sport activity must be attractive to divert participants from all anti-social behaviours like alcohol and drug abuse, and bad sexual behaviour. As a hook, Calip, Green, Taks and Misener (2017) claims that, a sport activity should attract participants by providing services like tutoring, healthcare services and career counselling. To determine rater reliability, the sport programs were grouped in corresponding categories.

Interview questions were also sent to a women sports club in London. Fifteen women, including four coaches and eleven young women athletes were interviewed. Complete interview questions were examined for common themes, including the benefits, challenges and barriers they experienced at their centre


Among the 42.5% programs, about 123 were in Europe while Australia had 29. While Asia had 55, North America had 68 sports for girls and women. Africa, on the other hand, only had 101. The three main program objectives that were identified are increasing gender equity, social capital development and social integration, as well as individual development (n=49, n=54, n=109 respectively). All The Group’s sport for development objectives were represented as indicated in Table I below:

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Typical program content found included social inclusion such as combating stereotypes, citizenship and accessibility, personal development content such as leadership, life-skills and self-esteem, health education content such as nutrition, drug or alcohol abuse, HIV/AIDS and maternal health. About two-thirds of the programs helped to increase social inclusion by attracting participants from different backgrounds. Other programs (n=99) acted as hooks while n=61 acted as diversion. Overall basketball included n=28, dance had n=29, fitness had n=83 while soccer had the highest number of n=139. Fifty-three popular sports were used in sports for development initiatives with many of them combining non-traditional sports (double-dutch, cultural dance) and traditional sports like basketball and soccer.


The research also found that few sport for development programs for women and girls mentioned applying scientific evaluation and monitoring to determine the actual effect of the programs on women and girls over time. This finding demonstrated the lack of scientific evidence in women and girls sport for development programs, a fact that strengthens the need for using evaluation, something that practitioners and policymakers need to use to maximize the targeted objectives and impacts of the programs in women and girls.

Results from the interview questions are tandem with the findings of this paper. This is because it was found that even though there are challenges such gender inequality, that coaches experienced in reaching the coaching positions, sports have enabled women athletes to achieve individual development, social integration. Women can now participate in sports that were initially male dominated, interact with their fans, and have learned more about health and wellness.


The application of sport for development to empower women and girls is undeniably the initiative of UNESCO and the United Nations, and other national governing agencies and bodies demonstrated by the increase of these programs globally. From these findings, it is clear that sport for development initiative contents were delivered using sport as a method of achieving social inclusion. According to (Hargreaves, 2002), social inclusion initiatives offer secure sporting environments that allow women and girls to express themselves and socialise through physical activity and movement. This is, especially, vital in communities that have strict religious and cultural practices (Walseth, 2008). This feature has made sport for development initiatives for social inclusion to be common in Eastern European nations, Africa and Asia (Walseth, 2008). These authors claim that establishing environments that help in meeting community needs shows an increased awareness about interconnectedness of matters concerning physicality, gender, ethnicity and race that is vital if everyone gets the chance to participate (Walseth, 2008).

This research also shows that sports can be used to attract participants, as hooks, an appropriate approach for communities that need educational programs about skill-development, self-efficacy, mental health, reproductive practices and problems such as HIV/AIDS. Research shows that such programs are common across different continents and are effective in places where women and girls have baseline information and knowledge of the sports and how to access the programs (Uhlenbrock and Meier, 2018). Uhlenbrock and Meier (2018) claims that sport is not relevant or useful in the lives of women and girls who are disease stricken, malnourished or poor and who see these problems as normal part of living. Therefore, sport for development initiatives trying to hook such communities using sports may not be effective (Uhlenbrock and Meier, 2018).

From these findings, it is clear that sport activities in sport for development initiatives include, basketball and dance, general fitness and soccer. Soccer being a popular game is also an accessible sport regarding cost, equipment and space. This makes it easy for agencies and international organizations to use it to empower women and girls and to use it as a means of educating them about different issues. On the other hand, activities such as general fitness including cultural gams, running are also associated with low cost, need-limited space and equipment, can similarly be used to empower, and educated girls and women. It is also possible to incorporate a community’s cultural heritage in activities that include dance. Such a sport for development activity can easily be welcomed in communities that also look to retain or safeguard their cultures.

The targeted outcomes of sport for development initiatives examined in this research concentrated on gender equity, social capital development, social integration and individual development. Initiatives used to encourage individual development used models that can help participants to become healthier mentally and physically and learn about practical life skills (Zipp, Smith and Darnell, 2019). Research by Zipp, Smith and Darnell (2019) promote programs that encourage individual development and those that can help achieve social capital development and integration. These authors note, on the other hand, that sociocultural barriers pose the risk of hindering the participation of women and girls in such sport for development sport programs and can negatively affect initiatives of inclusion and gender equality.

Even though gender equity has been identified in this research a being among the main sport for development objectives, most programs the programs, more than 77% focused solely on women and girl participants. Brooke (2020) claims that the discourse concerning sport and women is now focused on separation versus integration. This author claims that while several benefits can be seen by establishing separate environments, this still has its disadvantages. Sugden (2018) argues that separate environments can recreate or escalate social exclusion between women and men and their respective groups.

According to Schulenkorf and Sherry (2021), inclusive settings used as the main goal of sports for development and peace programs is beneficial. Walseth (2008) also suggests that cross-group socialization and interaction promotes understanding, tolerance and communication. Nonetheless, Walseth and Amara (2017) say that there are some countries where cross-group interaction between women and men is not allowed. This makes it necessary and important for practitioners of sport for development programs to comprehend the needs and cultures of women and girls in such communities before implementing or developing their programs (Walseth and Amara, 2017).

Hancock, Lyras and Ha (2013) highlights the United Nations and the Beijing Platform for Action that are advocating for the development of special programs that target women and girls as a means of increasing gender equality and empowering them to eradicate disease, hunger, poverty and achieve sustainable development. Although these organizations have encouraged girls and women to take part in sports for development initiatives, they insist that separate environments is effective compared to combined settings.

Even though separate environments is currently the trend, research have to show why these settings are effective compared to combined settings. It is, therefore, not possible to make conclusions regarding whether combined or separate sport environments is good for women and girls participating in sport for development initiatives. It is imperative, therefore, for future studies to examine the types of program environments, single-sex and mixed groups, to determine the one that is better for achieving gender equality. The presented evidences have also failed to show how sport for development initiatives help to achieve intended outcomes, gender equity and social capital development, except for mentioning that these things are achieved, no mention of how the programs facilitate this success. As such, this research has shed little light on the impact of sport for development initiatives on the culture, social, psychological and physical wellbeing of women or girls globally.

Limitations of the study

This study focused on programs that have been updated on online databases. This makes it difficult to know the other programs, possibly many that go on that have no internet access. According to Hayhurst, Wilson and Frisby (2011), the internet is an important part of today’s competitive neoliberal world, promotes, protects our interests, and can be used to form relationships or online networks. However, these authors claim that those who lack access to technology are disadvantaged, particularly concerning building partnerships and in areas of funding.

Additionally, this research has touched on programs shallowly and has not focused on detailing a single program making it difficult for practitioners and academic to understand the outcomes, processes or contents of these programs. Lastly, this research has not provided evidence on how these programs are evaluated or monitored to see their impact on women and girls and whether their objectives are actually being met. Future research need to look into programs such as the International Working Group on Women and Sport to find out with they meet the Millennium Development Goals.


Many policies are supporting women and girls development through sport to achieve gender equality and other Millennium Development Goals. The Windhoek Call for Action, the Brighton Declaration and the United Nations, and other international and national organizations have implemented different development programs mean to empower women and girls to promote gender equity, education and health. There are, however, barriers that exist between the formation and the implementation of policy. There are many sports for development programs across Europe and globally that are meant for women and girls. These programs are helping to promote gender equity, individual development, and social capital development. Sport has the ability to increase social inclusion and attract participants to different programs. It is, however, important to determine the evaluation and monitoring measures that have been put in place to ensure that these programs are actually meeting the objectives for which they were created, particularly with regard to empowering and developing women and girls and to ensure that they are in robust educational, economic, political and social positions.


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