Promoting Women’s Development through Sports

“No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you.”  – Muhammad Ali Jinnah
Sustained socio-economic development cannot take place in a setting where women are not put at the center of development agenda. According to McKinsey, empowering women could add $12 trillion to the global economy by 2025. Recognizing the importance of women’s development for the overall growth of the country, Pakistan’s Vision 2025, places a strong emphasis on providing an enabling environment where women can realize their potential and make productive contributions to the development process on an equal footing as their male counterparts. 

Women’s development is strongly linked not only to their economic independence but also to the freedom to pursue their own path. In this regard, it is important to take affirmative action to mainstream women in fields that have cultural/societal barriers for women’s entry. Sports is one such area which has traditionally been dominated by men but holds great potential for women as well. 
Recent developments from the field of sports demonstrate that given the opportunity, women can prove their mettle and earn international recognition in a number of sports including cricket, badminton, tennis and squash. In the Special Olympics World games 2019, Pakistan won a total of 18 gold medals out of which half were bagged by women. In Hampshire Weightlifting Championship, an emerging Pakistani weightlifter, Rabia Shahzad, won a gold medal. She also managed to win a silver medal in the Welsh Open Championship 2019. Mahnoor Shezad, a Pakistani badminton player, won a bronze medal in the 2019, Bulgarian International Championship. Whereas, Sana Mir, the former captain of Pakistan’s national women’s cricket team, became the first Pakistani woman cricketer to rank number 1 in the ICC ODI bowling ranking in 2018. Similarly, Kiran Baloch, the legendary female cricketer, with a score of 242 holds the record of the highest score in ICC women’s Test match. Maria Toorpakai Wazir, one of Pakistan’s best squash players rose to her career’s highest ranking of 41st in the world. These are just a few examples. Countless other women athletes are also constantly making their families and nation proud of their achievements. 
Promoting inclusion of women in different sports would tackle several challenges head-on. With a rank of 133 out of 160 countries in Gender Inequality Index, Pakistan does not enjoy a favorable image in the international arena as far as women’s development is concerned. Increased visibility of women in sports, would therefore serve the purpose of improving Pakistan’s soft image abroad. Additionally, it would attract global female sports associations to form linkages with our national associations. This, in turn, would provide our female athletes a better opportunity to enhance their skill set and be at par with international standards. It would also provide an economic boost to the domestic sports industry by increasing demand/consumption of goods and equipment and would therefore contribute to the overall economic growth. 
Women’s participation in sports would contribute to development in several ways. At an individual level, participation of women in sports is can play a significant role in improving physical health of the participants. In this regard, women who engage in sports are reported to have better immune systems that reduce the risk of falling prey to chronic and non-communicable illnesses. There are also important psychological benefits that could be gained, e.g., improved body image and decreased risk of depression. Moreover, an empirical study carried out by Loughborough University revealed that involvement in sports improves the cognitive, learning and communication abilities. It is also reported to have a positive impact on academic achievement by way of improved ability to concentrate. 
Furthermore, venturing into new fields helps boost self-esteem and confidence, and develops leadership, management and teamwork skills among women. These skills improve the chances of landing better jobs. Participation in sports also serves as a means for economic independence of women by integrating them into sports related livelihoods. 
On a social level, it provides women a platform for freedom of expression by allowing them to channelize their energies into activities other than the ones prescribed by societal norms. Opening up spaces for women in traditionally male dominated fields, therefore, helps break negative gender stereotypes which limit women’s mobility, liberty, decision-making power and economic independence in the society by eventually neutralizing the bias against the role of women in public sphere. Sports can therefore be used as tool for enhancing social tolerance and cohesion.
Overall, women’s engagement in sports would contribute positively towards several developmental outcomes of Sustainable Development Goals such as good health and wellbeing (SDG 3), gender equality (SDG 5), decent work and economic growth (SDG 8) and reduced inequality (SDG 10). Increased women’s participation in sports should therefore be considered an important strategy as it not only effects women’s development but also contributes towards making stronger communities and stronger economies. HH

The writer is an economist and development sector enthusiast who writes on social issues and policy reforms.
E-mail:[email protected]

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