"Words like torches in a sea of fog"

Written by Stefano Cisternino

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6 April 2021

Football: A tool for social cohesion or reinforcing female exclusion?

The idea that sport is a powerful tool for development and peace is not new. In 1894, Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, said: “I remain convinced that sport is one of the most forceful elements of peace and I am confident in its future action.”

But it was Nelson Mandela’s words that inspired the contemporary movement. In a speech at the 2000 Laureus World Sport Awards, he said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.” This followed his use of the 1995 Rugby World Cup to try to unite the South African people, following the official end of apartheid.

In 2003, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution in favour of the use of sport as a tool for development and peace building. In 2015, it reaffirmed the 1978 UNESCO International Charter for Physical Education and Sport. Between 2008 and 2017, the UN went a step further by establishing the UN Office for Sport and Development and Peace. Through this agency, a large number of projects were developed particularly in Central America and West Africa.

In these initiatives, sport is a tool for integration or social reintegration in developing countries or in conflict-affected areas. For youth, sport can be a way of instilling respect for opponents and rules, teamwork, sportsmanship, determination and discipline. Sport offers many benefits, including individual development, health promotion and disease prevention, social integration, peace-building or conflict prevention/resolution and post-disaster/trauma assistance. 

However, despite its many benefits, Oxford (2019) warns that sport can sometimes reinforce gendered power dynamics.

With a focus on Columbia, Oxford says that while the local Sport for Development and Peace (SDP) initiatives have used football to contribute to a greater sense of community, it perpetuates and reinforces gendered ideas of women as peripheral actors in sport. She argues that therefore football can promote and reinforce the Western colonial model and a male-dominated system.

Gendered exclusion is multifaceted and manifests itself in everyday life through notions of appearance (e.g. girls need long hair and earrings), childhood toys (e.g. dolls for girls), gendered societal roles, and gendered space (e.g. woman occupy private and domestic space). But this  gendered ‘way of being’ can also be observed in the football playing fields, which while meeting places for the community, can also reinforce gendered divisions. 

Sport has been globally idolised as a means of healing wounds, repairing barriers and overcoming differences, but exactly for whom? Does it only benefit a part of the community?

In her ethnographic study, Oxford presents a testimony that highlight the stigma:

“We have had cases where gentlemen have stopped and insulted the girls, saying ‘This is not for you, you serve for cooking and for washing, to iron, this is for males!’”.

So while sports initiatives can be a useful and cost-effective tool to repair communities, build respect for others, and contribute towards social harmony and inclusion. In fact, I believe no other social activity brings people together in such large numbers, and with so much passion and fun. I think it needs to become more inclusive of both genders and must be careful not to perpetuate gendered norms.

But to unlock the social transformative benefits of sport (or from Columbian football championed by the SDP at least), it just needs to ensure equal participation, inclusivity and overcome the patriarchal influences from Western colonialism – perhaps a little easier said than achieved… 

Request Sarah Oxford’s (2019) ‘‘You look like a machito!’: a decolonial analysis of the social in/exclusion of female participants in a Colombian sport for development and peace organization’ full research paper here.

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