By Gulnahar Mahbub Monika, co-founder of Deshi Ballers and Law Changer in Bangladesh
"Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair" - Nelson Mandela
This quote has been deeply engrained in my heart as I navigated through hurdles over the past years. In recent years, the recognition of sport as a tool for women's empowerment has been in the limelight but it is yet to make a widespread impact globally. Speaking of impact, the potential of empowering women through sports globally is immense but these untapped strategies are yet to take over.
Values such as teamwork, self-reliance and resilience are a few of the many important lessons that can be fostered within women through sports, this not only helps build individuality but also proves to be a great driver of gender equality. Women who actively participate in sports and similar recreational activities have been found to have more confidence and self-esteem. It enables them to up-skill their physical and social selves, which translates to pride and better mental health overall. They develop transferable skills through sports such as leadership skills, teamwork and helps them to set goals that are applicable beyond sports. Adjectives such as "bossy", "loud", or even "too much" have been tagged on women as they try to rise as leaders. While societies have tried to suppress women by asking them to fit the "polite and quiet" standard, sports can give them an outlet to become their true selves while encouraging them to become the leaders they aspire to be. Skills such as teamwork, communication, assertiveness and leadership can prove to be drivers of successful careers, relationships and guide women through different stages of life. This helps women understand and be more aware of how they are treated, and give them the courage to fight back against injustice and even violence in their homes and communities.
Living in a third world country, there's no denying that many women have a hard time finding stable coping mechanisms. In this regard, I believe that sports can play a vital role in developing sustainable mental health and also help manage stress. It has been proven that exercise stimulates endorphins resulting in a lighter and calmer mindset. Personally, basketball practice sessions work as therapy for me and this is where I truly feel like my authentic self amidst the everyday chaos. Additionally, physical activity helps women understand their bodies and allows them to create a sense of discipline in their everyday lives.
From an economic perspective, I suppose that countries fail to acknowledge the benefits of women being involved in athletics. In 2022 the reality of gender inequality is impeding on us and issues such as unequal pay, gender-based violence, lack of investments, facilities, and opportunities are all at the root. Even basic facilities such as girls' changing rooms, playgrounds, safety, proper physiotherapy facilities, regular medical checkups, promotions, media coverage, and proper coaches for females seem to be a luxury.
As for Bangladesh, I believe that we are still unable to provide proper facilities for women and girls to participate in basic athletic activities. Bangladesh is yet to experience a paradigm shift in valuing sports and fitness for women. But regardless of the limitations with resources, opportunities and encouragement, the women's sports teams that do exist have performed incredibly, bashing all odds and proving to be prime examples of how sports can be an essential medium for women's empowerment. The national football and cricket teams of Bangladesh are the most prominent in the country and are exposed to multiple international participation opportunities, but other sports such as basketball and volleyball are yet to gain such reach. It is about time that the country starts to prioritise other sports equally and distribute the resources equally rather than having a narrow focus.
I co-founded Deshi Ballers in 2018. It is a female-led sports development organisation working to create a platform for Bangladeshi women and girls to be empowered through sports, specifically basketball. We work to empower and inspire females in Bangladesh to play sports and take the skills learned through sports to become leaders in other spheres of life.
I've been working in the sports space for about four years and have numerous examples of how sport has aided players in achieving greater good in their lives. Introverted individuals who lacked confidence are now taking over leadership positions, coming out of their comfort zones and speaking out loud. Many girls received scholarships, exchange program opportunities, and exposure due to their involvement with sports. Additionally, they are also earning their livelihood from playing sports. They feel empowered being part of the sports community. In my opinion, sports and athletics is one of the best ways to shape one's personality while growing up, in addition to other perks.
Over the years I have realised that athletics is not all about superficial achievements such as medals, rather it teaches us how to be competitive, respectful and to build coping mechanisms to deal with the various stages of life. I strongly believe that it has the power to abolish every difference and barrier that society has created and can help communities blend in a seamless manner to build unity.
To find out more about the work Gulnahar and Deshi Ballers are doing to empower women and girls in Bangladesh, visit their Instagram page, @deshiballers