Public Health Goals: Gender at Play in World Cup 2010

Read Part 1, Public Health Goals: What Has the World Cup Cost South African Women?


Originally from Kenya but now residing in Cape Town, single mother and avid runner 45-year-old Ruth Kamau manages Ikhaya Lodge, the bed and breakfast where I’m staying during my monthlong visit to the Rainbow Nation to run the 85th Comrades Marathon and see the World Cup. Ruth’s daughter Jessica is six years old. Ruth shared with me one evening that Jessica had been watching her twelve-year-old brother play Sims and the video game began simulating sex between two characters—obviously inappropriate for a child her age. She particularly stressed how harming it is when girls are exposed to sexualized content at such an early age. Instead, she leads Jessica toward games like Scrabble and she also shares that, “Jessica accompanied my son and me to Tae Kwondo classes and it is already clear she will enjoy some form of martial arts. A runner, I am not sure, but she loves dance. We attempt to do Yoga together and she enjoys going for walks with me.”

Dr. Maria Kaloianova, a public health physician I met with in Cape Town, agrees that “there is definitely a link between positive social behavior and sports for girls. Sports teach girls how to work in a team and form friendships and respect one another for their talents and abilities. It also gives them the opportunity to learn from one another and empowers them. Being part of a team of any kind gives one a sense of belonging and a role in society.”

And, women’s empowerment is increasingly gaining global attention. According to Women’s eNews, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently pledged $1.5 billion to improve the health of women and children, and the G8 summit has agreed to provide a further $5 billion (£3.3bn) over five years towards improving the health of mothers and young children in the developing world.

With the coming of billions of dollars in aid to help girls and women, perhaps we should consider how to create lasting change not only in poorer communities and for mothers and children, but how to create sustainable public health for the most suffering in Africa: the poor, black female.

Dr. Maria Kaloianova voices a positive possibility then a current setback. “I think sport has the potential to empower girls and also give them the ability to take charge of their lives. However, I don't think sport really reaches the poorer community of girls. A couple of reasons could account for that: lack of access to television (exposure to sport), lack of access to coaching, target population of girls have much higher responsibilities than girls in more privileged communities.”

Recently featured in the The New York Times, photographer Jessica Hilltout’s book, AMEN: Grassroots Football, a series of profoundly moving photographs documenting Africa’s passion for the sport serves as a tribute to “the majority, the forgotten.” Her book shares, “The World Cup happening on their continent is a huge moment for them. All the people who live and will remain in the shadow of this huge event deserve to have a light shone on them, not just for their passion for the game, but more so for the fundamental energy and enthusiasm through the way they live.”

In our interview, she expanded on her thinking about gender and sport in Africa, “For those who live far off the beaten track, and whose main concern is farming, sport is the least of their worries. These people are fit due to the nature of their daily chores like fetching water, fire wood and crushing maize (chores often done by women). The relationship to sport (as seen in the western world) depends on the daily realities people face, as well as their traditions, their beliefs, and social structure. That said, having access to sport depends on the person’s access to education, especially for the women. In most schools, there are girls and boys football and volleyball teams.”

For months, I have been fundraising for Girls on the Run International, SoleMates, Run for Congo Women, and Women for Women International: four organizations focusing on sports and public health. When I train, I frequently think of UNICEF’s quote from Beijing +15 earlier this year:

The girl child of today is the woman of tomorrow. The skills, ideas, and energy of the girl child are vital for full attainment of the goals of equality, development, and peace. For the girl child to develop her full potential she needs to be nurtured in an enabling environment, where her spiritual, intellectual, and material needs for survival, protection, and development are met and her rights safeguarded.

The 2010 World Cup was South Africa’s attempt to get the world’s eyes on them, to legitimize themselves as a capable nation, and to house the sport that unites their souls, their continent, and the shared world. Already there is increased fervor surrounding calls to action for education through projects like 1Goal, endorsed by politicians like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and too girl’s and women’s health in developing countries was just given $6.5 billion dollars due to outright need. The next step is to answer these needs, but also to create supportive, active, and inclusive communities for girls and women where they have the opportunity to flourish by engaging in healthy behavior and life style choices. The pot of gold may have arrived, but with South Africa as an example, it is only through empowering healthy girls and women that a country can grow and thrive.

A benefit race for Women for Women International and Run for Congo Women will take place in Paris, France later this year or early next. Check out Run for Congo Women to learn more about how you can participate and for race details as they develop.