The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to its knees, taking many lives and forcing the rest into isolation. However, the impact on women and girls is exacerbated due the existing inequalities, unravelling the progress made over the last 25 years since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) on unmet family planning needs, harmful practices against women and girls and gender-based violence. This year, the World Population Day theme is calling for safeguards on women and girls’ health and rights, especially during this pandemic. Women and girls must have access to the freedom to exercise their sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) for sustainable development.
The interlinkages between the area of sports, which brings about self-awareness of the power of the body, enabling the exercise of self-governance, and SRHR is very clear but a less explored area. Sports, which has long been treated as a male domain, can foster self-confidence, self-defence skills, and pride in their bodies’ physical powers apart from reproduction, with logical links to reproductive health for women and girls.
ARROW’s Sports, Health and Empowerment (SHE) Initiative targeted at adolescent girls, resulted from the need for gender, social and health interventions that was left unaddressed due to existing programmatic and social biases and this is why we are looking to explore this in a more in-depth level. This venture into sports is seen as an opportunity to not only empower the adolescent girls to make informed decisions on their body, but also in their personal growth. They are also able to explore communities beyond and learn from a wider network, when participating in sports professionally.
In the pilot phase, a group of passionate cricket players in Malaysia between the age of 14 and 19 shared their experience of playing the sport they love but are often told that it is not suitable for them. These young women hear on a daily basis from their family members and teachers that “cricket is for boys”, that being a cricket player will make them less feminine and will reduce their opportunities of finding a partner. Those who are married are told to stop playing to protect their womb, forcing them to suppress their own dreams to win world championships.
Our observation from the focused group discussion calls for the need of a programme that provides solutions and creates an environment that will enable continuity and sustainability of these players amidst the traditional gender roles that are enforced on them. This is as their development and well-being continue to be impeded by strong patriarchal and familial norms, in addition to socio-cultural and religious norms. According to WHO, sports affects girls for the better in key ways including physical health, mental health, academic and intellectual development, reproductive health and social inclusion. The need to empower the players to physically be aware of their body, and to care and respect their body including health, especially sexual and reproductive health is essential. The programme working on the development of girls in cricket accentuates ARROW’s work with young people on building the next generation leaders, and building perspectives and evidence on young people’s rights and leadership skills in the region.
The inequalities that are further exacerbated with the pandemic and disproportionately affecting women and girls, sets back efforts to leave no one behind for sustainable development. The effort to combat COVD-19 must ensure that the sexual and reproductive health rights and needs of women and girls are safeguarded as part of the local agenda to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. We cannot overlook these interlinkages and ensure that our efforts are not siloed to empower women and girls. On this World Population Day let’s pledge to support women and girls in all their diversities. The support should come from multi-sectors starting from the family, community to sports councils, government, civil society among others.
 UNFPA. (2020). Putting the brakes on COVID-19: how to safeguard the health and rights of women and girls now. Retrieved from UNFPA: https://www.unfpa.org/events/world-population-day
 This section is derived from the ICPD+25: Reclaiming and Redefining Rights section on adolescent girls in the region
 Bailey, R., Wellard, I., & Dismore, H. (2004). Participation In Physical Activities And Sports: Benefits, Patterns, Influences And Ways Forward. World Health Organization.
by Deepa Chandra