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Millions of people around the world have been captivated by this year’s Olympic Games.  The world is likely enthralled by many aspects of the games, such as the excitement of the competition and the athletes’ almost super-human abilities.  But one of the most heart-warming characteristics of the games is witnessing individuals achieve their childhood dreams. Last week the U.S. morning news show, the “Today Show,” interviewed the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. This group of five teen women shared stories about how, as children, they watched the Olympic gymnastics teams and dreamed of one day competing in the international arena.

Like the U.S. gymnasts and many other Olympic athletes, little girls all over the world dream of a bright future. They dream of becoming astronauts, doctors, cowgirls, even Olympians. Yet for some, the dreams are more modest: a future where a girl is able to complete school, marry a man she chooses, and avoid early pregnancy. However, for many girls, poverty, gender inequality, high rates of early marriage, lack of education, and negative sexual and reproductive health outcomes put these dreams out of reach.

New research suggests that involvement in sports might help to mitigate barriers that hinder the future of many adolescent girls. Sports can help build social networks for girls in developing countries, allowing them to challenge gender norms that contribute to their vulnerability. In addition to promoting gender equity, sports can enhance physical and mental well-being, promote social integration for girls, provide girls with adult mentors and encourage the development of new skills, knowledge, and self-confidence.

Additional research is beginning to show that participation in sports might have a positive effect on sexual behaviors, knowledge, and attitudes as well.  Many HIV prevention programs are beginning to incorporate sports as a platform for disseminating HIV prevention messages. Girls-only sports programs might be able to address issues such as self-confidence, social identity, and the way that family and communities perceive girls.

While not every girl who is involved in a sports program will become an Olympic athlete; the evidence suggests that sports programs might enable adolescent girls to achieve many other childhood dreams. 

To learn more about how participation in sports can help girls build social networks, challenge gender norms, and enhance their physical and mental well-being, also see the latest IYWG YouthLens: Sports for Adolescent Girls.


Sarah Forde is the executive director of Moving the Goalposts, a girls’ football (soccer) and development program in coastal Kenya. She is a development professional with experience in sports and development programming, gender, and social justice. She is also a trained radio journalist: she worked with the BBC for six years and is currently engaged in communication work on sexual and reproductive health issues affecting young women in Africa.

I’m sad to say I probably wouldn’t be described as “young” any more. I turn 40 at the end of the year but I still play football every week and have done so since I was about five years old. As a feminist with a love of football, I set up Moving the Goalposts (MTG) 10 years ago. Moving the Goalposts is a girls’ football and development initiative in one of the poorest districts, Kilifi, in coastal Kenya. The aim was to get girls out playing football, challenging gender inequalities, and giving them opportunities to fulfill their potential. In the early days, we had fewer than 100 girls playing football. Now, in 2011, there are close to 3,000 rural girls participating in MTG’s football leagues and tournaments. They organize their own field activities as the coaches, referees, and first aiders, and they have access to information and social support from peer educators and peer counselors.

So in 10 years, MTG has grown quite substantially, but so what? With more girls taking part, is there more impact and more social change? Not necessarily, but we’ve tried to measure change over time with a survey developed by the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. We piloted the survey in 2009 and administered it again in 2010 to track the same girls 12 months on. We interviewed 167 girls in both years and have some interesting findings. We used the strictest statistical procedures, in which we only claimed that a change could be attributed to MTG if the probability of the change in scores was less than 0.002. In other words, there was only a 0.2% possibility that the change could have happened by chance. The girls reported better-developed life skills in 2010 than in 2009. The life skills questions that made up this score covered being able to identify your own strengths and weaknesses, deciding on short- and long-term plans, taking advice from those with experience, being well-prepared, enjoying challenges, and showing perseverance and self-control. Working well with others was another area that girls reported had improved; this is often a benefit that is attributed to playing team sports such as football. There was a significant difference in the scores regarding speaking; questions about this indicator asked about knowing when to speak, when to be silent, and what to say; explaining to others one’s goals and ambitions; adjusting how one speaks to different people; and presenting information to others.

Another important feature of MTG’s work is peer-educator led sexual health education, which includes learning new ways of thinking about people with HIV/AIDS as well as encouraging members to be more empowered in their sexual relationships. The impact of MTG on beliefs about HIV/AIDS was measured with five items: understanding how people are infected, talking about HIV/AIDS to others, increased confidence to refuse sex, treating those infected with respect, and knowing how to protect oneself from becoming infected. The score increased significantly from 2009 to 2010.

Our monitoring and evaluation efforts are not just to prove we are doing well or to show that our program has significant benefits for girls. They are to let us know where we could improve and where we should direct more of our efforts to achieve our aims in the coming years. I’ll blog again soon about our findings that showed where we’re having least impact and where we need to up our game. Oh, and by the way, we’ve documented more qualitative work in a book called, Playing by Their Rules: Coastal Teenage Girls in Kenya on Life, Love and Football, which is a journey into the teenage world of rural East African girls, whose voices are rarely heard beyond their own small world. It’s available here.

To learn more about how participation in sports can help girls build social networks, challenge gender norms, and enhance their physical and mental well-being, also see the latest IYWG YouthLens: Sports for Adolescent Girls (233 KB).

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This blog is brought to you by the Interagency Youth Working Group (IYWG) with financial assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The content is managed by FHI, which functions as the secretariat for the IYWG.
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