Teen girls are becoming movers and shakers across the globe in areas like gun violence, environmental activism, and gender equality, as well as advocacy for inclusiveness and systems change of all kinds.
And rather than simply accepting the hands they’ve been dealt, teen girls and young women are taking the lead to change their lives and the lives of those around them. A Swedish teen activist, Greta Thunberg, has recently made waves and garnered well-deserved media attention for her work around climate change. She has protested outside of the Swedish parliament and has spoken about the need to protect the environment for future generations at Davos and the United Nations. Thunberg has also inspired others her age, mobilizing school-based climate change protests in Sweden and worldwide. She was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and stands to be the youngest recipient since Malala Yousafzai if she wins.
Do major league sports leaders have a responsibility to model respect for women in everything they do? This question is fresh on the minds of many due to Robert Kraft, philanthropist and owner of the New England Patriots, being charged with two counts of soliciting a prostitute in Florida, where he was allegedly engaging in sex acts with women at Orchids of Asia Salon.
Through his philanthropy, Robert Kraft has funded initiatives specifically aimed at ending sexual exploitation of women and girls. USA Today reports that Kraft gave $100,000 in 2015 to My Life, My Choice, a Boston-based organization that works on ending child sex trafficking. Some might ask how the same man can be both perpetrating sexual exploitation and funding initiatives to end it.
National Girls and Women in Sports Day (NGWSD) is commemorated annually in the first week of February. According to its sponsor, the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF), the day represents “a national observance celebrating the extraordinary achievements of girls and women in sports.”
The WNBA honored female athletes on February 6, and was one of many institutions noting the value of sport in fostering not just fitness and health in girls and women, but also self-confidence and leadership skills. “Lead Her Forward” was the 2019 NGWSD theme, and the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Deborah Antoine noted, “NGWSD is a great time to uplift these girls and women, along with the advocates using their platforms to inspire greatness in female athletes. We are also more committed than ever to protect Title IX, along with strong policies and safeguards for women in sports and all industries.”
Several marquee female athletes traveled to Capitol Hill to celebrate the day and advocate for women’s athletics. The contingent included WSF President and three-time Olympic bobsled medalist Elana Meyers Taylor, Paralympics swimming gold medalist Jessica Long, and World Rugby Hall of Famer Phaidra Knight.
The Capitol Hill visit focused on keeping Title IX strong, supporting a Senate bill to establish a commission on the state of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic movement, and advocating for more sports and fitness opportunities for girls and women at all levels.
In addition to pressing legislators to improve funding for and access to sports for girls and women, the athletes also had a little play time at the George Washington University campus. Star athletes led elementary, middle and high school girls in multi-sport clinics, including Olympic ice hockey medalist Meghan Duggan, 1984 Olympic hurdles gold medalist Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, Paralympic basketball and alpine skiing gold medalist Alana Nichols, and three-time U.S. National Champion climber Sasha DiGiulian. Following the clinics, WSF President Meyers Taylor led discussions on Title IX, and shared her thoughts on athletic and leadership opportunities for girls after graduation.
“Access to sports and all the benefits they provide is critical for girls and women. Sports teach girls leadership, teamwork and confidence,” said Meyers Taylor. “National Girls & Women in Sports Day is a great time to reconnect with the girls and women we serve and call for a national push to support girls and women in sports.”
The Women’s Sports Foundation partners with the National Women’s Law Center, George Washington University, Girls Inc. and the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition in promoting the nationwide day dedicated to women’s athletics. NGWSD began in 1987 to bring national attention to the promise of girls and women in sports, and has since evolved into an event to acknowledge the accomplishments of female athletes, the positive influence of sports participation, and the continuing struggle for equality for women in sports.
The WSF is a 501(c)(3), and since its formation in 1974 by tennis legend Billie Jean King has advocated and organized to promote equal access to sports and physical activity for girls and women. While only a small fraction of athletes will play professionally or in top-tier college programs, engaging in sports and fitness activities improves mental and physical health throughout a lifetime. The WSF has relationships with more than 1,000 of the world’s elite female athletes, and has impacted the lives of more than three-million youth, high school and collegiate student-athletes.
The mission of the Women’s Sports Foundation “is dedicated to creating leaders by ensuring all girls access to sports.” There is no better example of this than its founder Billie Jean King, one of the premier female tennis players in history, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. King was a pioneer on and off the court. She was a founding member of the Women’s Tennis Association, defeated Bobby Riggs in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” match (brilliantly captured in the eponymous 2017 movie with Emma Stone and Steve Carrel) and was designated one of Life Magazine’s “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century” in 1990. Exceptional on the court, King’s greatest legacy is no doubt the increased respect, visibility and compensation she gained for female tennis pros (and women athletes in general).
The WSF’s focus is not just on elite athletes, but also the benefits of sport for all girls and women. The WSF notes that it “distributes upwards of $10,000 per week from operating dollars to provide opportunities for socioeconomically underprivileged and inactive girls to participate in sports and physical activity.” The WSF has also been a powerful advocate for sports scholarships for women; scholarship money has increased from $100,000 in 1972 to over $1.8 billion across the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) today.
The WSF has fought for equal facilities and access to sports for girls and women, with major grant programs including GoGirlGo, which has gotten over one million girls physically active, and Sports 4 Life, which has targeted grass-roots sports opportunities for over 6,000 girls of color aged 11-18. The WSF has also given over 1,300 grants to champion athletes and teams to fund training and travel, and produced more than 40 studies on gender equity and sports.
Naturally, the WSF is a key supporter of “Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972,” the legislation that while perhaps not leveling the playing field, at least allowed access to it. The WSF works with NCAA leadership, the Office of Civil Rights, coaches, parents and media in maintaining support for the law, which bars gender discrimination in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance. The law states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Consequently, girls’ participation in K-12 and collegiate sports has dramatically increased since the 1970s. Still, the WSF notes that only one-quarter of girls get sufficient physical exercise, and there are persistent gender, socioeconomic and racial barriers to health and fitness. This is crucial, as in addition to obvious health benefits, physical activity improves body image over time, reducing depression, eating disorders, and other mental health difficulties. Sports are also key in developing discipline, teamwork, perseverance and leadership skills, valuable attributes on and off the field.
A great deal of emphasis in feminist philanthropy is placed on women, and changing the role of women in society. But what about men? What role can men play in challenging gender norms, and what initiatives are gender equality organizations taking to reach men?
To further explore these questions, I spoke to Giovanna Lauro, Vice President of Programs and Research at Promundo, by telephone from her D.C. office. Promundo was founded in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil in 1997, working with young men in Rio’s poorest communities on transforming gender norms and concepts of masculinity. It has since taken that approach far beyond Brazil, and its website notes, “Promundo works to promote gender equality and create a world free from violence by engaging men and boys in partnership with women and girls.”
The organization’s expansion from the global South to global North makes it an anomaly, as many NGOs start in wealthy countries and then move into less developed nations. Regardless, Lauro says that there is a commonality to the organization’s work, wherever it takes place, namely, “a frustration with the limits of putting the burden of change on women and girls only.” One can work to empower women and girls all one wants, but it’s a tough mandate without change occurring among the other half of the population.
Promundo’s Washington, D.C. office opened in 2011, allowing the organization to expand its reach globally to more than 40 nations. To date, Promundo’s projects and technical assistance have reached roughly 10 million individuals, including over 4,500 health professionals, 22,000 educators, 1,400 members of the police and military, and 300 government officials.
The emphasis on masculinities—what it means to be a man—separates Promundo from many NGOs in the gender-equity field. Lauro argues that continued female empowerment requires men and boys to see themselves as allies and partners, not adversaries. Moreover, change is not a zero-sum game; men and boys also gain in many ways when rigid attitudes toward gender are challenged.
Promundo’s “Manhood 2.0” project, developed in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh, aims to prevent teen dating violence by engaging young males aged 15-24 in understanding the effects of harmful gender norms. Manhood 2.0 is modelled on Promundo’s Program H (named after homens and hombres, the Portuguese and Spanish words for men) which launched in 2002. Employed by Promundo and its partners in 34 countries worldwide, Program H is based on research with young Brazilian men who exhibited more gender-equitable attitudes than others in their demographic cohort. Men expressing less rigid attitudes around gender roles typically have peer group support in this area, positive personal experiences around gender equality, and male role models who express support for gender equality.
Stereotypical and rigidly enforced conceptions of gender are toxic to all. Statistics indicate the high rate of male violence against women, but it’s not as if men are untouched by violence. They are twice as likely as women to die of suicide, and comprise over three-quarters of homicide victims in the U.S. The large number of male lives lost in wars and other armed conflicts goes without saying. Research by Promundo and other organizations indicates that many of these negative outcomes have their basis in overly rigid conceptions of masculinity. Promundo’s report “Masculine Norms and Violence: Making the Connections” explores this relationship.
Engaging Men Through Pre-Natal Programs and Soccer
Engaging with young men in the U.S. and abroad around harmful gender norms is a noble goal, but how does one lead the male horse to the trough of gender equity? Firstly, Promundo identifies local partners who can make a difference. “Find a facilitator who believes in what they preach,” says Lauro, “someone who has shown a commitment or potential for working for gender equality.” Next, she says, it’s vital to “incorporate contextual intervention” in recruiting and retaining participants. In other words, don’t place an announcement for a gender-equity workshop in the local paper and expect men to rush the doors. Lauro notes two specific angles that Promundo has tried: fatherhood and soccer.
In Chile (and other locales) sessions on gender norms have been rolled into pre-natal programs for first-time dads. Fatherhood, family, child-rearing and gender norms are intertwined, and Lauro notes that a group for expectant fathers can function as “a place where men can have meaningful discussion around gender and express themselves in a safe space.” Promundo is a sponsor of the State of the World’s Fathers report series examining men’s contributions to parenting and caregiving globally. These are published as part of the Men Care (“a global fatherhood campaign”) which Promundo co-founded and coordinates.
Sports is another approach used by Promundo to recruit young men to explore gender-equity and masculinity. The study “Engaging men to prevent gender-based violence” sponsored by Promundo and the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women documents a Brazilian program that used soccer to engage men around the issue of gender-based violence. According to the report, “Sports, particularly weekly football (soccer) matches were used as a venue for dialogue and an opportunity to convey the themes of the workshops.” The same report also details programs aimed at understanding and combating gender-based violence that were organized around the workplace (Rwanda), the health sector (Chile), and the community (India). Regardless of the setting, scale or target of the intervention, “We focus on building local partnerships with local organizations,” says Lauro.
The only places where Promundo implements projects directly using its own staff is on its home turf of Brazil, the United States, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where in 2014 Promundo co-founded the NGO Living Peace with local partners. In Eastern DRC, Promundo has worked to promote gender equity in the wake of a brutal conflict which resulted in millions of people being injured, killed, and displaced. The DRC is notable for a very high level of sexual violence, not just as part of the armed conflict, but also in the home and elsewhere. Promundo’s outreach has sought to combat the prevalence of attitudes and practices, including ones about masculinity, which had embedded gender violence so deeply in that society. “We take into account trauma and how this affects behavior,” says Lauro.
Measuring Concrete Change
Promoting gender equity is not easy, and approaches must vary. She notes that sometimes norms change, and then drive a change in behavior. Other times a behavior—which might be encouraged by a public policy like parental leave for both women and men—can produce a change in attitudes, which subsequently influences behavior, and so on. It is not always easy to separate cause and effect. Regardless, the Italian-born Lauro, who has a Ph.D. in political science from Oxford, and previously served as Associate Director of the Women and Population Programme on behalf of the United Nations Foundation, believes in the power of research. “Our goal is to ensure that we can measure concrete change around attitudes, behaviors and norms,” she says.
To this end, Promundo and the International Center for Research on Women have created the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES). This household survey probes men’s and women’s practices and attitudes around gender norms, gender-equality policies, care-work distribution, intimate partner violence, health, economic stress and other issues facing women, men, and families. As of 2017, notes Lauro, IMAGES and IMAGES-inspired studies have been administered to more than 40,000 men and 20,000 women in nearly 40 countries. Moreover, Lauro describes the IMAGES survey as an “open source” tool which “can be used by local organizations to inform their own work.”
Promundo uses research not just to take the temperature of a given community regarding gender-equity, sexual violence and other topics, but also to evaluate whether the programs that it and its partners sponsor are having an impact. Do they really produce a change in attitudes and practices? How, I wondered, can one know if a program simply teaches its participants to talk a good game about gender equity to researchers, but leave the reality unchanged?
Lauro notes that a rigorous attempt to gauge the impact of programs and interventions requires more than asking participants easily-answered questions. “From our research, we know that when we word questions in the positive, everyone answers the politically correct ‘yes.’” In other words, asking, “Do you support equality between men and women?” is likely to elicit positive answers, but more authentic responses come from creative questions. “For example,” says Lauro, “we don’t ask ‘have you ever beaten your partner?’ Instead, we ask, ‘how often have you beaten your partner?’” The idea is to remove the cues that would push respondents toward the “correct” response. Furthermore, says Lauro, to corroborate the trends highlighted in men’s responses, women are surveyed as well to find out if they have noticed a reduction in violence. Finally, notes Lauro, “At times we employ a control group which helps isolate the impact of the intervention.” This commitment to research has helped Promundo weed out or modify interventions which have been ineffective in promoting change.
Lauro has a long history of work in this area, including her Ph.D. thesis, which addressed the double standard of European governments toward the global South on harmful gender norms. The Europeans would advocate for women’s rights in Africa or Asia, but at home would use contentious gender issues as a wedge to demonize or punish immigrant communities rather than protect women. Lauro recommends that issues such as child or forced marriage, wherever it occurs, be “framed first and foremost as a human rights issue rather than a cultural practice.”
Promundo works with NGOs and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization. These stakeholders have partnered with Promundo, or adopted their programs and implemented them in communities around the world. Promundo receives funding from bilateral and multilateral donors, foundations, international NGOs, and individuals. A range of feminist-friendly foundations also support Promundo, “There is a large pool of funders committed to combating gender-based violence,” says Lauro. Other foundations, she notes, are more interested in thematic work on fatherhood and caregiving, gender and youth, or the ramifications for women of large-scale conflict resulting from local gangs, or from ethnic, tribal, national or other differences. Regardless, funding and advocacy around male conceptions of masculinity and gender represents an important part of the fight for gender equality.