Sport, development, and gender: What about the boys?

While I was working in Lesotho I came across the story of Eudy Simelane. She was a member of the South African Women’s soccer team. She was an human rights advocate. She was one of the first women to live openly as a lesbian in her township. She was gang-raped and murdered in 2008. I wasn’t in Lesotho when this happened, but there were a number of ‘corrective rapes’ that occurred while I was there and the news stories often made reference to Eudy Simelane. Corrective rape refers to the use of rape to cure lesbians of their sexual orientation. Raping the gay out of them I suppose.

Reading about Eudy caused me to question the notion of empowerment in sport for development and the deployment of sports programmes that leverage the Girl Effect (the idea that investing in and empowering adolescent girls will alleviate poverty and change the world). Eudy was a woman who was an elite athlete, an activist, and by almost any definition of the term you could argue that she was empowered. However, this empowerment obviously had limitations. This has also been discussed in recent research by Ruth Jeanes in Zambia. The peer leaders that Jeanes interviewed spoke about sport and education programmes helping them to develop ‘power from within’, but they were constrained in developing ‘power to’ and challenging ‘power over’ because of constraints faced in the contexts in which they lived.

I’m not trying to argue that sports programmes that endeavour to empower girls and women are ineffective, or misguided. However, I agree with recent work by Hayhurst that argues that:

Girl Effect programmes…tend to ignore gender as a relational category by framing girls as having gendered identities that need to be augmented or changed (ie through sport). Thus the onus seems to be on the girls to change their behaviours, actions and attitudes in order to achieve gender equality, while ignoring the need to enlist men and boys to accomplish this same feat.

Maybe I am arguing that they’re misguided then, but it is this idea of enlisting men and boys that I want to expand on more. A recent post on the Global Dashboard blog titled Men and Development: Why gender should not just be about women reviews the book  Men and development: Politicizing masculinities

I’m reading the book now, but here are two excerpts from the blog post which I took notice of:

The problem lies in the expectations society has of men. In West Africa, for example, men are expected to set up a home, marry at least one wife, and accumulate and provide for children and other dependents. Those who fail to perform these duties forfeit the respect of their elders, women and their peers; they cannot become “real men”

As men are disempowered economically, politically or socially, they resort to harmful expressions of maleness to restore their pride and reassert their power.

It could be argued that sport could serve as an avenue for men to reassert their masculinity and power. Although this is often seen as problematic because it reproduces traditional norms of masculinity, it could also act as an alternative to other demonstrations of masculinity such as violence, alcoholism, and sexual violence. However, this raises questions about perpetuating traditional masculine notions of sport and the possible tensions that would then be produced through promoting female participation in sport. The example of Eudy Simelane speaks to this. Therefore, I wonder if through sport men can be asked to challenge hierarchies of masculinity that serve to oppress both men and women, and to engage in new ways of “doing ‘their’ masculinity differently” (p.3).

From my own experience in Lesotho and speaking with other people in the field I believe that sport for development NGOs have a strong focus on gender equality and increasing the participation of girls and women in sport. This is often seen as a way to empower girls and women, and to also challenge traditional gender norms. However, this focus seems to overlook the possible benefit of embracing the fact that sport is often a male domain and using it as a way to encourage men to question the ways in which being a certain type of man is privileged. For example, the International Platform of Sport and Development’s section on gender focuses almost entirely on the impact of sport on girls and women and the need for increasing the participation of women and girls in sport, but it does not mention any role for men or boys. At the recent 5th World Congress on Women in Sport, UN Women Deputy Executive Director Lakshmi Puri noted that:

The broad participation of men and boys in sport, both as athletes and spectators, is a powerful avenue to change attitudes and stereotypical behaviours.

This should lead to questions regarding the degree to which sport for development programs engage men and boys in ways that facilitate discussions about masculinity and the social change that needs to occur if the inequalities associated with gender are to be addressed.

As an afterthought I should post a link to the Mentors in Violence Prevention programme. It runs workshops with college level student-athletes and encourages them to “speak out against rape, battering, sexual harassment, gay-bashing, and all forms of sexist abuse and violence.” The programme has now moved on to a broader approach by not just focusing on athletes, but also initiating programmes in a variety of sectors – including the school system and the military.

4 responses to “Sport, development, and gender: What about the boys?

  1. great post Shawn! seems to be the topic of the week, Gloria Steinhem wrote this post a few days ago If you haven’t seen Tony Porter’s TED talk “A call to men” I would highly recommend it. It’s very concise and to the point, only problem is there are only like 4 men listening to him in the audience.

    • Thanks for the recommendations. I’ll have to check them out. I can understand the lack of males in the audience. I have been the only male in a few of my MA courses. That’s why I think sport has some potential. Not sure how though…

  2. andreabundon

    Interesting post Shawn! Follows on the current discussion at SFU for building a Men’s Center (response to Women’s Center) – the problem seems to be that advocates and critics are visualizing two completely different things when they talk about a Men’s Center. Those for it are characterizing it as welcoming, safe place were they can provide a space for programs and services for male students as well as a place to discuss issues related to masculinity (example given was discussing violence and abuse in the home). Those against such as center seem to be imagining a locker room or clubhouse where violence again women would be perpetuated and hegemonic masculinities would be reaffirmed…

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