By Laura Pappano
During the IWG World Conference on Women and Sport one speaker joked that the formal program was what happened between coffee breaks.
The observation was spot on: women sport leaders from 100 countries used coffee breaks as jam sessions. They crowded onto benches, gathered at tall tables, and clustered at the edges of a grand piano to urgently explain challenges, plights, accomplishments amid the tinkling of teacups. Could a U.S. non-profit work in Zambia? How did Venezuela make access to sport in schools a national right?
Sport, as sessions and coffee breaks made clear, can be a lever against forced early marriage, lack of access to education, ill health, and poverty. It is training for leadership and safety. Sport may look like play, but it is serious business.
A few final takeaways:
– Obesity is a challenge around the globe. In Indonesia, the women’s sport association PERWOSI (for women not involved in competitive sport) has encouraged “mass aerobics,” where 5,000 gather in public spaces to exercise. In the countryside where athletic facilities and equipment are scarce they model a rigorous form of traditional dance to stimulate interest in physical exercise (think Zumba).Click to see a few seconds of a dance demo. IMG_0029
– In Tonga, where obesity and physical inactivity cause health problems like diabetes and hypertension, the International Netball Federation leads a project encouraging women aged 15-45 to gather three times a week for exercise and play.
– Among Bedouin girls and women in Israel, who typically drop out of school at age 12 to start families and may have four children by 18, physical activity is non-existent. For them, as for many women in developing societies, a life of cooking over open fires and gas spurs poor health and higher rates of respiratory problems.
Nurit Werchow, self-described “sport entrepreneur” and member of the Israel Volleyball Association and Mifalot Education and Society Enterprises, helped ti trained 16 Bedouin women to coach “catchball” or “netball” (but not the same netball as the basketball-like game) a simplified version of volleyball. “After four months, we ended up with a team,” she says, showing a photo of women so excited at having experienced athletics for the first time that they used whatever was available to play: Two women standing on chairs in a community center building holding a rope to serve as a net for play. It was infectious.
Which brings us to a key point: Sport is a political, social, and economic tool. It is also a vehicle for spreading good health – and joy.