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IOC Joins U.N. to Level the Playing Field for Women

Beatrice Paez

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 1 2010 (IPS) - The sight of girls and boys playing cricket and skateboarding together in the streets of Afghanistan and Iraq may be unexpected to some, but it is a homegrown effort aimed at fostering gender equality.

“It’s amazing. It’s been at the encouragement of the elders. It’s not an imposition, they’ve asked for it,” Amir Dossal, executive director of the U.N. Office for Partnerships (UNOP), told IPS.

“Sport is one of the greatest equalisers…where young people can play, live together and grow up to be better citizens. They learn to understand that adversarial situations do not mean you are enemies. You actually look at the best of the other side through sport,” he added.

Acting in concert with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other U.N. agencies, UNOP believes that promoting women’s participation in sports can help achieve wider aims, particularly the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on women’s empowerment.

Studies have found that sport programmes help reduce girls’ and women’s feeling of social exclusion and isolation, especially those who live in poverty or are unable to attend school.

The IOC’s new role as a permanent observer to the U.N. gives it the opportunity to help shape the decision-making process at the General Assembly and to partake in concrete initiatives on the ground, officials said this week.

The IOC organises a conference every four years on women in sports. Its last meeting drew more than 600 people from 116 countries. At the grassroots level, it has created spaces for dialogue, where people can exchange information and share their disappointments on the inclusion of women in the decision-making within the sports community. From there, the IOC assesses the situation and uses these recommendations to move forward.

On the benefits of being a permanent observer, “We’ll learn how we can be helpful to the other agencies, they’ll learn more about how we operate,” Anita L. DeFrantz, IOC chair, told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday.

The U.N. has long advocated for sports to be recognised as integral to development, and it has been successfully used as a tool in peacekeeping operations.

The benefits of practicing a sport extend beyond increased self-confidence, U.N officials say. The U.N.’s children’s agency UNICEF views sport as a requisite for growth. It “ensure[s] that children play sport almost as a side by side issue to being fed, clothed and educated,” said Dossal.

UNOP together with UNICEF has also provided disabled children and adults with prosthetics.

Dossal stressed that one of the impediments in reaching MDG 5 – to reduce the maternal mortality rate by three-quarters – is a lack of information. Coupled with programmes aimed at increasing women’s health through sport, UNOP has also started a broadband initiative to facilitate access to information on maternal health.

Through music and dance programmes such as aerobics for pregnant women, which are geared at addressing maternal health issues, women are able to reduce and prevent cardiac stress, ease labour pains and strengthen their pelvic muscles. It creates a space for women to share their experiences and to build a support system.

Once a privilege of the wealthy, DeFrantz noted that even the most cash-strapped countries now participate in international games. “It’s not the same for women, but for me, that’s just an excuse,” she said.

Among the 205 National Olympic Committees, only Brunei, Darussalam, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have yet to send women to the games, DeFrantz said. Nevertheless, this gap has been narrowed since 1996; previously, there had been 26 committees and they sent only men.

Between 1984 and 2008, the percentage of women at the Olympics grew from 23 to 43 percent.

Asked by a reporter whether government involvement was necessary to ensure that everyone has a chance to participate in sports, DeFrantz said that women needed more support, and most countries do acknowledge that governmental responsibility in this area is important.

Women leaders from countries like Brunei, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been more vocal about getting young girls engaged in sports, Dossal told IPS. “We just don’t intervene on national policies because it is a homegrown approach.”

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