Women’s sport participation and gender equality: African women in the beautiful game

The earliest documented women’s soccer in Scotland, 1888 was the start of an emergent European trend, but faced resistance to women at competition level due to their being too delicate for the physical demands of the game. Women in soccer also presented problematic challenges to the stereotypical woman as homebound caregiver.

There has since been rapid progress with a few significant firsts; women’s UEFA International tournament in 1982, FIFA women’s World Cup in 1991, South African National women’s team in 1993 and sponsored women’s South African League in 2001. This paints a positive picture; sport is known to improve women’s self-esteem, confidence, to challenge gender inequalities through constructive male-female relationships and increase educational opportunities.

However African women broadly are still subject to patriarchy, poverty, sexual and domestic violence and lack of freedom and education. Gender parity in South African politics, with its emphasis on women’s rights has not yet filtered through to the majority of domestic situations. Will South African Women’s soccer ease gender inequality?

South African sport undeniably remains a male dominated domain with aggressive undertones; the majority of coaches/decision makers are male. Girls in the region are generally socialised into domestic roles at a young age providing a barrier to female participation. On the other hand, the South African soccering Association has elected 3 female Executive Committee members and has announced that all National women’s teams will have female coaches, a means for encouragement of increased girls’ participation in the sport. Significant sponsorship has increased coverage and opportunities for women in soccer and improved legitimacy of the sport and women’s abilities on and off the field. At community level, women and girls are receiving greater access to facilities.

On an individual level, the sport is seeing subtle changes in families and traditional roles, fathers and brothers accepting domestic responsibility to enable female family members to train. Girls’ increased confidence on the pitch has transferred to the classroom and educational opportunities have increased. Could this be an end to the spiral of female poverty, inequality and powerlessness?

Ogunniyi concludes “Large scale alterations to the hegemonic masculinity…do not occur in a short time period. Change takes time and occurs predominantly on an individual and household level with few advances in gender equality transforming the (higher) levels of society…Participation in soccer has provided opportunities for the females in this study to counteract the dominant masculinities and femininities prevalent in society and sport.”

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