Interview with Ani Chroni, President, WomenSport International

“This is how cities can support us in achieving gender equality, by recognizing and believing in the potential of the sporting women.”

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Ani Chroni, President, WomenSport International

How to increase opportunities and positive change for women and girls at all levels of involvement of sport and physical activity?

Why is sport an efficient tool to empower women and girls?

Because physical activity and sport are fun and enjoyable platforms for women to develop strength (physical, cognitive, emotional), agility, commitment, perseverance, team spirit, solidarity, confidence, self-esteem, resilience, leadership, management and negotiation skills, as well as compassion and respect for others. These skills and values are central to physical activity, sport and life in general; and most importantly they are transferable from the sport fields to the arena of life (to civic engagement, professional life, family life, school, etc.). Even at the elite sport level transference is there; if women can find meaning in the oftentimes absurd and at all times exhausting training practices vital for making it to the top, “chances are [they’ll] be able to find meaning in that other absurd pastime, life” (Bill Bowerman, running coach). Empowering women in and through sport, is about empowering women in and for life.

What are the main missions of WomenSport International?

WSI’s mission is to encourage increased opportunities and positive change for women and girls at all levels of involvement of sport and physical activity. We engage in research-based advocacy for women in sport. WSI was formed to meet the challenge of ensuring that sport and physical activity receive the attention and priority they deserve in the lives of girls and women and to meet the need for an international umbrella organization that can bring about positive change for girls and women in these important areas of their lives. WSI is both an issues and action based organization.

Our objectives include: identifying and promoting issues of importance for women and girls in sport; serving as an international advocacy group; providing support for individuals or groups working to promote positive societal change; producing and/or disseminating educational materials and other information relevant to increasing opportunities or improving the experience of girls and women in sport and physical activity; working with international sports governing bodies and other organizations to promote the greatest possible participation of girls and women in sport and physical activity at all levels of involvement; operating as a clearing house for sharing research, information, ideas and good practices.

Some of our key activities are: developing networks and avenues of communication between member groups and countries; working with specific sports governing bodies and other groups in order to promote greater involvement of women and girls in sport at all levels of participation; conducting and promoting research into problems and issues relating to the female athlete; serving as an advocacy group for matters of gender equality; recommending, or where appropriate, designing and implementing strategies for change. (http://www.womensportinternational.org/).

What challenges do you face in achieving your missions?

There are three key challenges: lack of financial support, lack of time and human resources as we all work voluntarily for WSI, and people’s resistance to change. We are working with all three as best as we can; baby steps are still steps forward.

The IWG Congress was held in May 2018. What are for you the main positive outputs from this Congress?

The main outputs are (i) the shift towards implementation of and action on the ample recommendations, directives, and policy plans we have in paper and (ii) the close collaboration of key stakeholders in the women and sport movement with governmental and non-governmental organizations, such as the International Working Group on Women and Sport, International Association for Physical Education and Sport for Girls and Women, UN Women, International Olympic Committee, International Paralympic Committee, UNESCO, The Commonwealth, on Action 4 of the Kazan Action Plan.

In your view, how can cities support you in achieving gender equality?

Cities can be the starting blocks in this race for gender equality. I call it a race having learned through my lived experiences that the art of competing is to forget all about limits and to keep moving forward. If we, in the women and sport movement, didn’t forget the many times we stumbled and the many times the road was blocked for us, we wouldn’t be here today. I also believe that starting small can lead to big changes and improvements. I trust that starting with cities will lead us to counties, to countries, to continents and then we got the world at our hands!

The new Human Capital Model proposes that “the outcomes of physical activity can be framed as differential ‘capitals’ that represent investments in domain-specific assets: Emotional, Financial, Individual, Intellectual, Physical, and Social. These investments, especially when made early in the life course, can yield significant rewards, both at that time and for years to come.” (p. 289, Bailey, Hillman, Arent, Petitpas, 2013). If the individual, physical, intellectual, and emotional capitals are not of direct interest to cities, I am confident that the financial and social are. If cities deliberately invest in programs and opportunities for their girls and women to participate in physical activity and sport, they are actually investing in their people.

“Proactive investment, policies and strategies can help address inequalities in sport participation and leadership (SDG 5.1, 5.5 and 5.c). Evidence suggests that the strong and active participation of women in decision-making processes has a potent impact on social development. In many communities, targeted sport-based programmes, especially at grassroots levels, as well as sport values education have made important contributions to the empowerment of women, girls and other vulnerable gender groups. Well-designed and effectively delivered initiatives can provide safe spaces to engage and support women and girls, promote female leadership and encourage respectful attitudes towards women and girls (SDG 5.5). Eliminating all forms of violence and harmful practices against women and girls in sport will also contribute to wider sustainable development goals (SDG 5.2 and 5.3)” (pp. 10-11, Kazan Action Plan, 2017). Hence, if cities empower their girls and women to play sports and to develop themselves in and through sport, they are investing in the future of the cities. This is how cities can support us in achieving gender equality, by recognizing and believing in the potential of the sporting women.

What do you hope to achieve in the near future with WSI?

Let me start backwards, in the long run we want to live in an inclusive and safe world, a world for all free of violence, discriminations and oppressions. Where gender won’t matter but who I am and what I can do as a person, a coach, an athlete, an exerciser, a professional will matter; where opportunities to be and to do will be there for all of us irrespective of gender, age, abilities, sexuality, race, ethnicity; where measures like IAAF’s new testosterone regulation won’t be even conceived, far from being proposed; where cases like Nassar’s exploitation of female gymnasts will be prevented from happening and immediately dealt with, not wait for 169 young women to be abused; where girls are free from religious and family barriers that prevent them from taking part in sport and attending PE classes; where if women want to race the Tour de France, they will have a chance to do it; where people won’t believe wrongfully that sports like ski jumping would destroy a woman’s uterus; where women won’t be the minority in executive boards and the decision making arenas of sport.

In the meantime, we have been working hard to get the Global Observatory for Women, Sport, Physical Education and Physical Activity launched (a UNESCO Category II institute). The Observatory will be a powerhouse of advocacy, knowledge management and communication in fostering gender equality and empowerment of girls and women through sport. It will promote education and inspire effective and sustainable action globally. Seeing that materialize will be a hard-earned achievement for us. At the IWG Conference in Botswana, we had the opportunity to get together with other key stakeholders in the women and sport movement and discuss how we are going to work together to achieve this goal. UNESCO member states are being solicited for their support at the moment and I am very positive that a Smart City and a smart nation will soon take up the challenge and lead the way forward!!