Is sports really a good tool to get girls talking about sexual and reproductive health?

June 15, 2015 by

Karate girls

Engaging in sports intrinsically makes you more mindful about your body. You may start speculating how to be healthier – a good entry point for inquiring about your general well-being. For adolescent girls in marginalised communities, these questions can lead to discussions about more sensitive topics, particularly sexual and reproductive health.

“It is only natural for adolescent girls to ask questions about their bodies and health in relation to sports,” said Rashida Parveen, from BRAC’s adolescent development programme. “Sports has unique opportunities to start non-threatening dialogues that could lead to elaborations on more sensitive issues such as menstruation or hygiene check-ups.”

In Bangladesh, access to sexual and reproductive health DSC_0835_edited2services and education is very poor. That’s why many development organisations are looking to sports as a tool to get girls talking about these otherwise ‘taboo’ subjects.

Sports have been increasingly recognised and used as a frugal and high-impact tool in humanitarian and development efforts. UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon believes it can be instrumental in achieving the millennium development goals, which include promoting gender equality, reducing maternal mortality and improving maternal health.

In several African countries, sports is already being used to address health concerns, particularly in the fight against HIV/AIDs by providing preventative education. Peer education and support, which come hand-in-hand with sports programmes, can play an effective role in disseminating necessary health-related information. More specifically, the creation of safe and informal spaces through sports allows girls to ask their peers or mentors questions about their bodies without fear of judgement.

BRAC’s adolescent development programme in Bangladesh and empowerment and livelihood for adolescent programme in Africa have already been using the idea of ‘safe spaces’ to address health education, confidence-building and other life-skills. Evidence shows these ‘girls’ clubs’ are particularly salient for girls, tearing down the restrictions often placed on them by parents and society.

The implications of safe space interventions clearly show positive changes in the lives of girls. At the same time, we understand that sports help build essential life-skills that girls need to effectively and successfully exercise their sexual and reproductive health rights. If implemented correctly, sports for development programmes can be used in tandem with existing initiatives to improve access to sexual and reproductive health information, education, and services for girls.

With the FIFA Women’s World Cup currently underway in Canada, it might be the right moment for development organisations working on girls’ empowerment to ask how sports programmes can be effectively used to help progress their cause. As the momentum around girls’ and women’s sports grows, it is important and timely to strengthen existing interventions, experiment with new models, and conduct comprehensive evaluations of sports programmes to not only empower girls to take charge of their health, but also ensure sustainable change.

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Anushka Zafar is a senior officer in BRAC Communications.