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A national tennis champion from Turkmenistan crafted a program to expose more girls to her sport. In Karachi, Pakistan, one of the city’s only female sports journalists aims to strengthen underprivileged girls with athletics. The skateboarding founder of Peru Skategirl developed a strategy for her South American country to prove that "skateboarding is not just a male sport."

U.S. Olympian Michelle Kwan (far left) and other panelists listen to Luz Amuchastegui, a sports entrepreneur from Argentina.

The projects spring from a month-long stint in the U.S. that ended this month for 17 young female athletic leaders who belie the narrow, often-violent images of their home countries in America’s conventional wisdom. The women were paired with counterpart mentors in the American sports and corporate world to develop plans for extending the benefits of athletics to more girls in their own countries. The mentors include executives from organizations such as the U.S. Golf Association and companies like the sport shoe brand New Balance.

The Global Sports Mentoring Program is an initiative of the U.S. State Department and ESPNW, an arm of the ESPN sports television network established in July 2010 for women fans and athletes. The program is administered by the Center for Sport, Peace and Society at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, which studies and encourages the “intentional use of sport and physical activity to promote more peaceful individuals, more peaceful families and communities.”

The goal of the mentoring program is to strengthen the influence of women and girls around the world through sports. Statistics illustrate the link, said Shellie Pfohl, executive director of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, who spoke during a Sept. 12 event with the visitors at the U.S. Institute of Peace. She cited survey results released in June showing that 96 percent of American female corporate executives played team sports when they were growing up.

“We cannot underestimate the power of sports in the lives of young girls and women,” Pfohl said. A separate World Health Organization report focused on the connection between participation in sports and health habits among youth, she said. The findings drew links between sports participation and not only better health, but also a reduction drinking, substance abuse, smoking and risky sexual behaviors.

Kathleen Kuehnast, the director of USIP’s Center of Innovation for Gender and Peacebuilding, said there’s an “exact link” between a voice in a sports club and a voice in government.

“That kind of empowerment in sports and clubs and associations in nonprofit [as well as] profit organizations is a road for women to learn the skills [for] governance,” she said.

Hayam Essam, who supervises two women’s basketball teams in Egypt and serves as the only female on the governing basketball committee, said, “Sports can be related directly to a lot of problems that we face, even in politics.”

“My work in the basketball committee, giving women and girls a voice in the work and in the club, can be escalated to giving women a voice in the parliament,” Essam said.

In addition to the women from Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Peru and Egypt, this year’s Global Sports Mentoring Program also brought in:

  • A sports entrepreneur from Argentina;
  • A manager of a sports organization that advocates legislative changes in sports and development in Brazil;
  • A national rhythmic gymnast from Bulgaria;
  • A former general manager of Cricket Kenya who consults for the International Rugby Board;
  • A social responsibility manager in the Mexican Federation of Football Associations;
  • A former member of the Nigerian House of Representatives whose foundation promotes gender equity;
  • The co-founder of a women’s basketball league in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea;
  • A project coordinator for the Polish Foundation for Sport and Culture;
  • The founder of a soccer academy in Saudi Arabia;
  • A South African municipal sports officer; a professor and coach from Taiwan; and
  • Two participants from Uganda, one a sports reporter and the other the head coach of the Ugandan Women’s National Soccer Team.

The women are examples of “the way sport is being used to promote healthy and engaging dialogue and debate, even with the differences” among them, said Sarah Hillyer, executive director of the UT center.

U.S. Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, who served until recently as the State Department’s senior advisor for public diplomacy and public affairs, said at the USIP event that the connections between athletics, politics, business and social influences can be explored further.

“We need to find out how to leverage sports in the areas of peace and conflict resolution,” Kwan said.

Brazilian Daniela Castro, who is seizing on the World Cup and Olympic Games coming to her country to raise awareness of social issues affecting women and girls, said the impending events are inspiring citizens to question authority. Her organization is trying to educate people about their rights and give them the power to influence government.

“Using sports, we discovered that it’s possible to change things,” Castro said at the USIP event. “For us, talking about peacebuilding is talking about social development and freedom.”

In Kenya in 2012, civil society organizations and sporting federations joined forces to try to prevent a repeat of 2007 election violence by appealing to youth with educational, informational, and motivational programs.

“The group of people who people could identify with were sports people,” said Barbara Khakasa, the Kenyan rugby consultant, as she cited an example of herself on the field. “When Barbara is out there running on the field, she’s not a Bukusu or a Luhya or a Kikuyu; she’s just a Kenyan who’s bringing the medal home.”

Zola Ndlovu, the South African municipal sports officer, has found a similar leveling of the playing field. Sports can teach citizenship and build character, she said.

“We use sports to break barriers,” Ndlovu said. “When you are on the field of play, there is no skin color, there is no age difference. The one thing that everyone can relate to is the game itself.”

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