International Association of Physical Education and Sport for Girls and Women

Fostering Female Development through Sport
02/24/2014 10:47

It is a milestone for all actors promoting ‘Sport for Development and Peace’ (SDP) that an official ‘International Day’ has been proclaimed by the UN General Assembly. However, the necessity to determine such a ‘landmark’ also reveals the still unexplored, underestimated or even neglected potential of sport as a tool for development and peace. The core principles of SDP comprise participation, inclusion, diversity and empowerment. SDP therefore adopts a resource-oriented approach embracing everyone regardless of abilities, age, physique, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic status or other demographic variables. In order to reach as many individuals as possible, sport and games have to be perceived and implemented in a broadest possible way. Human motives of being physically active transcend excellence and performance and need greater recognition. Additional motivational elements of physical activities involve health, adventure, expression, and suspense as well as a sense of belonging (Kuhlmann, 2006). There is work to be done to live up to these principles which are not negotiable.


A major step toward acknowledgement already occurred in 2005 when the UN declared the ‘International Year of Sport and Physical Education’ highlighting the significant role of sport in respect of the ‘Millennium Development Goals’ (MDGs). The ‘International Association of Physical Education and Sport for Girls and Women’ (IAPESGW)[1] is predominantly focusing on the third MDG which claims the promotion of ‘gender equality’ and the empowerment of women through sport.[2] However, apart from identifying the need to eliminate stereotyping, there is still little recognition of the gendered nature of sport in many countries. Certain socio-cultural patterns of male and female ideals entail an inconsistency or even contradiction between femininity and sport. In terms of SDP focussing on gender issues, it needs to be specified that the primary aim is not to develop women’s and girls’ sport, but to foster female development through sport (Saavedra, 2005). Following this reasoning, the focus is not only on sport-specific skills, but involves a holistic appreciation of a ‘sport and movement culture’ which should eventually enable life-long physical activity. In any case, empowerment can hardly be interpreted more literally in any other area than in and through sport.


Even though the date of the ‘International Day of SDP’ was chosen to coincide with the opening of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens on April 6th1896, caution is requested regarding this association. Except for the commitment to peace, there are few parallels in terms of participation or inclusion. As a matter of fact, that initial event was an elitist and selective competition for men only. Female athletes were fully excluded in 1896 and only permitted to participate four years later in Paris, exclusively playing Tennis and Golf (IOC 2013). At the beginning of the 20th century, rumours of female infertility and physiological deformation caused by sport activity were afloat. Even though Pierre de Coubertin kept emphasising the ‘Olympic spirit’ according to which participating was more important than winning, he clearly limited this participation to sportsmen (Olympic Museum, 2007). Whereas the number of female athletes participating in the Olympic Games steadily increased over the last century, the number of active women in management and leadership positions within the Olympic Movement remains modest. In Mexico City in 1968, the first sportswoman lit the Olympic Cauldron.[3] Despite this powerful symbol, providing female access to key positions was a long haul. Not until 1981were the first two women accepted as IOC members. In 1990, the first female official was elected on to the Executive Board (IOC, 2011). A milestone was set in 1995, when the ‘Women and Sport Working Group’ was established (and finally transformed into a ‘Commission’ in 2004). After the awakening of the Olympic Games in 1896, it took exactly 100 years to emphasise female sport and gender awareness in the ‘Olympic Charter’: “The IOC strongly encourages, by appropriate means, the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures, particularly in the executive bodies of national and international sports organizations with a view to the strict application of the principle of equality of men and women" (IOC, 1996, p. 10). One year later, in 1997, the first female IOC Vice-president was chosen. In October 2013, 24 out of 110 IOC members were women, and 4 out of 14 members of the IOC Executive Board were female (IOC, 2013). The IOC organises major quadrennial conferences on women and sport. The first edition was held in Lausanne/Switzerland (1996) followed by conferences in France, Morocco, Jordan, and USA.[4] These trends indicate that a certain degree of gender awareness has theoretically reached the Olympic Movement, but not yet in practice.


Whereas such facts and figures regarding the IOC and Olympic athletes may have symbolic and role-modelling functions (Meier, 2013), they remain quite abstract indicators featuring elites. Referring to the SDP core elements, however, bottom-up initiatives entailing local capacity-building and community development are even more valuable (Talbot, 2002), but often harder to measure and showcase, and thus rarely in the spotlight.


Still today, aspects of sport and physical activity are considered ‘unfeminine’ and inappropriate in the everyday lives of girls and women in many places around the world. This scepticism and opposition towards athletic females is often based on traditionally expected norms: “Children who behave in gender-appropriate ways are considered normal; anything else (girls insulting, threatening, and physically fighting boys and other girls; boys who do not like sports and who cry a lot) is considered gender deviance” (Lorber, 2010, p. 249). Such biologistic assumptions claiming “that feminine- and masculine-appropriate sports and male sporting superiority are in the ‘natural’ order of things” persistently linger in many societies (Hargreaves, 1994, p. 7). The potential of sport as an instrument to promote gender equity and equality comprises a double dimension as both obstacle and opportunity: On the one hand, socio-culturally relevant gender norms need to be addressed and respected as the starting point. Therefore adequate measures for understanding cultures and diversity are indispensable for any inclusive, safe and relevant sport intervention. On the other hand, thoughtful SDP programmes using ‘typically male or female’ sport activities may foster gender sensitivity and challenge inequitable gender constructs at all societal levels. Ideally, bottom-up and top-down initiatives should be coordinated and complementary.


Early international advocacy efforts regarding ‘women in sport’ (WIS) were initiated six decades ago. IAPESGW was founded in 1949 and committed to organise international networking meetings and scientific congresses on a regular basis. These efforts mainly concentrated on physical education and school-sport topics initially and, alongside subsequent critiques of other advocacy groups in and beyond the field, were accused of having a “middle-class, elitist character and white, Western, educational and cultural hegemonic stance” (Hargreaves 1999, p.461). Many attempts continue to be made to address such criticisms. Since Copenhagen in 1949, consecutive quadrennial IAPESGW ‘World Congresses’ have been held in many countries beyond the white Western world including Japan, Iran, South Africa, and Cuba. Members come from 45 countries, and the network shares members’ research, practice, resource ideas, international news and members’ concerns. For example, a major international focus on increasing opportunities for Muslim girls and women internationally emerged from members’ requests in the late 1990s. The recent book on ‘Muslim Women and Sport’ (Benn, Pfister & Jawad, 2011) collecting narratives of women from Europe, Africa and Middle East is being followed by one on ‘Latin American Women and Sport’ planned for 2016/17.


The WIS movement burgeoned from the 1990s, but kept a rather conservative and elitist European, North American and Australian focus (Saavedra, 2005). However, early pioneers mainly worked on a voluntarily basis and steadily increased their international membership and networking for the benefit of WIS. Efforts to promote female sport in the early 1980s were mainly regional or national.[5]


The early 1990s saw the development of a group called ‘Women Sport International’ (WSI)[6]. This organisation joins interested researchers who address global issues on gender and sport with a critical and focused approach. WSI continues to concentrate its advocacy efforts on contemporary issues and academics collaborate on ‘sensitive topics’ such as homophobia and sexual harassment in sport. It does not host international conferences, but members do participate in IAPESGW, IOC and IWG events.


A major accelerator of the WIS movement happened in the UK in 1994 with the Brighton Conference and ‘Declaration on Women and Sport’. This key document claimed “equality for women in sport throughout the world embodying a visionary sporting culture that would enable and value the full involvement of women in every aspect of sport” (Hargreaves, 1999, p. 465). Thereby, it paved the way for female sport to be put on various political and institutional agendas (White 1997). Another Brighton outcome was the establishment of the ‘International Working Group on Women and Sport’ (IWG). The IWG provides a (predominantly electronic) platform for international networking. It is not a members association, but is financed by bodies such as Sports Councils in successive countries who offer to host the Group for four years and a culminating quadrennial Conference. IWG consists of a committee which includes a representative from IAPESGW and WSI alongside regional representatives to support the reach of the network. From its beginnings in Brighton, IWG has been hosted by Namibia, Canada, Japan and Australia, current host Finland, with legacies supporting, monitoring or focusing on improvements and challenges for WIS internationally.


Summing up, the international WIS movement started six decades ago and substantially gained momentum from the 1990s until today. Besides national organisations and initiatives, the global and now mutually supportive efforts by IAPESGW, WSI, IWG and subsequently the IOC are promising for female sport enhancement around the world. However, two major concerns need to be addressed: First of all, there are basically three parallel conference cycles striving for the same cause. As a positive consequence, the common issue ‘Women and Sport’ is constantly on the agenda somewhere. Maybe a negative consequence is that existing power and people resources get diluted and synergies lost between events and organisations. The second concern relates to promoter-recipient relationships and target groups. Who is creating opportunities and addressing challenges for whom? Is envisaged empowerment of others not a contradiction in terms? In terms of research, do ‘Western’ methodologies and study designs really reflect and grasp authentic circumstances in developing countries? Such questions need honest answers and actions to ultimately advance SDP. Concepts from ‘developed countries’ have to be applied with caution in other socio-cultural environments: “To uncritically ‘export’ these approaches is to perpetuate the process of colonization through research“ (Kay, 2009, p. 1190). In order not to impose ethnocentric top-down strategies, explicitly participatory and transparent approaches involving all stakeholders are necessary.


In this regard, IAPESGW perceives April 6th 2014 as a promising starting point with future annual reminders offering ongoing opportunities for dialogue, public awareness, critical evaluation and possible course corrections. IAPESGW is committed to pursue the path expressed in the Declaration of the last World Congress in Cuba 2013 which emphasised pedagogy, leadership, education, development, and diversity. Thereby, the strategy of global thinking and local action has been formulated and will be implemented in the first locally organised ‘Regional IAPESGW Symposium’ in Turkey in September 2014.[7] Since the ‘International Day of SDP’ offers obvious associations to the Olympic Movement, it is also a responsibility of all SDP stakeholders to speak out against any form of discrimination in connection with any current and future Olympic and Paralympic events. Diversity is a core value of SDP and needs to move beyond theoretical understanding to practice.



Marianne Meier |


[1] See (accessed 15-01-2014).

[2] See (accessed 12-01-2014).

[3] See (accessed 14-01-2014).

[4] Thereby, the main objective is “to analyse the progress made in this field within the Olympic Movement and to define a prioritised line of action to improve and increase the participation of women in sport” (IOC 2011, p. 3).

[5] Key players were for example the ‘Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity’ (CAAWS) founded in 1981 or the British ‘Women's Sports Foundation’ (WSF) established in 1984 (see and (both accessed 18-01-2014)).

[6] See (accessed 18-01-2014).

[7] See (accessed 20-01-2014).



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