From professional sports to playing pickup soccer outside the school yard, women and girl athletes have historically been subject to different forms of discrimination and restrictions when it comes to sports, simply because they are female.
Discrimination is rampant even at the highest level of sports: the Olympics. In 1991, the Olympic program was asked by International Olympic Committee (IOC) to make it mandatory for all new sports to feature women’s events. It took five more years for women to enter into “masculine” sports, such as football, weightlifting, pentathlon, taekwondo, and triathlon. It wasn’t until the 2012 Olympic Games in London that women were allowed to participate and compete in all sports.
Historical evidence shows that female representation in the Olympics has always been limited. In 1900, the first year women were able to compete; only 22 out of 997 athletes were female. Though there has been a significant increase over the years, it took 112 years for full representation in every sport. And in 2012, female athletes made up only 44 percent of the total participating athletes in the London Olympics.
The issue of male over-representation in terms of total number of sports and athletes stems mainly from structural reasons and varies across the world, depending on the cultural and social structures to date in any given country. Many countries have reported that male athletes receive better financial support than females for their training, because it is believed that men have more opportunities to win at the highest level than women.
India is no exception. In the first ever Olympic tournament where India competed as an independent country (1948), there was not a single female athlete who participated in the event and only four female athletes out of 64 (4 percent) participated in the next Olympic games in 1952. Even in the current Olympic games, where female athletes constitute 45 percent of the total athletes at the games (56 female out of 124), women’s participation from Team India in 2012 was only 28 percent (23 out of 83 athletes).
Meager participation of female athletes has often been attributed to their non-qualification for bigger events. In a country like India where women and girls constitute almost 50 percent of the total population, it is surprising to see that there are not enough female athletes who could qualify for different Olympic events. But when we look at the ways in which gender inequality impacts women’s lives, at the individual, community, family and institutional levels, we begin to better understand the barriers women and girls face to entering sports or in receiving support to continue playing sports.
ICRW recently conducted a study in Dholpur, Rajasthan, which showed when girls were asked whether they play sports, 54 percent of girls ages 12-14 said yes. This percentage declined to 30 percent among girls interviewed ages 15-16. This is surprising, given that more than three-fourths of the girls ages 12-16 said that playing sports will make them healthy, and half of them said they can make friends if they play sports.
The situation is more grim for girls in Dholpur in terms of negotiation. Fewer than half (48 percent) of the girls ages 12-14 reported that they can ask for play time from their parents once they complete their household chores. This number declined to 39 percent among 15-16 year-old girls and was only 33 percent among 12-16 year-old married adolescent girls.
This data tells us that only a fraction of the girls interviewed will continue to play sports, even though they see benefits in playing. When girls do not receive the opportunity to participate in sports on a daily basis and, further, find difficulty negotiating a safe space for themselves to play, how do we expect Indian women and girls to participate in professional sports?
Changing this dynamic is not easy. A few existing studies on sports and gender equality worldwide, and specifically in India, have pointed to rigid social norms and women’s and girls’ low degree of access to public space as two key reasons for low participation in sports, but most studies say that social expectations of femininity are a key driver of low participation.
In India, women’s and girls’ roles in the household are well defined, as they are expected to master household chores and care for others. An exploratory study among girls aged 12-16 years and their parents by ICRW in Mumbai, confirms how rigid norms around gender have impacted girls’ entry into sports in both their daily lives and professionally. Below is one illustrative quote from the study:
“…you are saying girls should play but if it is not [a] safe place for them, then where will girls go and play? And parents think that girls should remain at home, they [parent] are correct in their way because if there are some safety measures taken for the girls that could provide some comfort for girls while going out, but we all don’t feel comfortable due to safety issues here. So parents or brothers don’t allow their daughters or sisters to go out.”
The research described above dives deeply into just one area of one country. But our findings illustrate that until we break down both the structural barriers and rigid social norms that prevent them from making their own decisions, women and girls will continue to fall behind both on the playground and in the professional arena.
By Saira Habib, ICRW Fellow, Professional Fellows for Govern