In India, we’ve already counted how many girls are missing — from birth, from life, from school, but a casual glance at any playground will reveal a ghastly gender imbalance among the pitches and swings as well.
Free play, individual and team sports are all irreplaceable components of a healthy childhood. They’re an opportunity to learn and grow, mentally and physically. The benefits of playing sport reach into adulthood. So why are our girls not out there, playing?
World over, researchers have begun to question why, with the arrival of adolescence, girls begin to leave the sports fields. Their numbers thin in public parks and playgrounds. By their late teens they have all but disappeared. The phenomenon is not uniquely Indian. Around the world, by age 14, girls are twice as likely to drop out of sports as boys are. Research has found that girls in the US drop out because they have trouble managing their academics and social life or because they don’t envisage a career in professional sports.
But in India, the insidious ways patriarchy can cripple women becomes very evident with girls who should be at play. The indoctrination of girls begins in earnest in their adolescence. A Unicef report highlighting uneven distribution of unpaid, domestic work found that “girls in South Asia between the ages of five–14 spent twice as many hours a week on household chores as boys the same age.” The misogyny gets more earnest as girls achieve puberty. Hygiene poverty and/or the lack of education weave stigmas and anxieties around maintaining a normal routine during your period. The onset of womanhood also brings other restrictions. Girls are told playing is not safe, appropriate, or useful. Daunted by these impediments and with a lack of role models and peer precedents, girls themselves seem to lose interest.
As Saudi Arabia begins to address its shameful womens’ rights developmental delay by handing out quotidian “freedoms” (which women around the world take for granted) piecemeal, the images marking the lifting of restrictions are telling. Pictures from a women’s day event in Old Jeddah showed women finally allowed out without a male guardian, jogging around their city, sports style abayas and hijabs in place. In some, the women have their arms raised in celebration, their smiles reminiscent of photographs of Alice Hawkins, who, a century earlier, cycled around Leicester in her pantaloons, to raise awareness about women’s rights. The bicycle became a symbol for the suffragettes not least because it gave women the ability to move independently, in less cumbersome clothes. But I suspect that grin on our fierce feminist foremother’s faces came as much from the freedom as the exercise endorphins.
The patriarchal restricting of women’s pleasure is not usually spoken of in relation to physical exercise but it may as well be. Exercise endorphins improve mental health, relieve anxiety and chronic pain even in young people. Imagine denying an entire gender the joy of a runner’s high or the chance for solvitur ambulando.
Girls who don’t or won’t play sport forego the other physical benefits of regular exercise: stronger bones, a healthy heart, developed muscles, an ideal body weight and a healthier body image. Exercise eases the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome as well.
Exercise also works on the brain. Research has found regular exercise increases the areas of the brain used for learning and memory. Kids who play sport have better hand-eye coordination, problem-solving skills, academic focus and improved learning. It, perhaps, helps that physical activity regulates energy levels and sleep as well. Do girls not need this?
Sports, especially playing with other children, helps engender friendships and social learning. It can be a formidable tool for casual, non-sexualised interaction between genders especially in a country like ours where segregation of the sexes begins early. On the field, girls can, like boys, learn to be team players and leaders, to win and lose with grace, value their bodies for more than mere cosmetic appearances and figure out the relation between consistent effort and reward.
Playing sport as a child also affects how successful an adult is, especially for working women. EY Womens Athlete Network, an American organisation that seeks to develop leadership potential in elite women athletes beyond their sporting careers, conducted a survey which found that a background in sports can accelerate a woman’s career. A strong work ethic, determination and competitiveness learned on the sports fields became a solid advantage in boardrooms.
There is no downside to girls being encouraged to get out and play. But we have been raised by generations of women who were told it “wasn’t for girls”. These women gave up on play because their idea of modesty and demureness didn’t fit in with a swim or a rousing game of throwball. Maybe they were not allowed the independence or mobility that would allow them to participate regularly in more distant venues, maybe some were even warned away from developing “masculine physiques”.
There are many challenges to overcome — within and without — to allow girls the freedom to play. So, perhaps, the change must come from the same generation that is raising these young girls.
We have been fortunate to have outstanding female role models in Indian sport — Dipa Karmakar, PV Sindhu, Mithali Raj, Saina Nehwal, Sakshi Malik, Geeta Phogat — all come from varying backgrounds and each has an inspiring story. The magnificent Mary Kom is, perhaps, the brightest of them all — a formidable boxer and mother of three — proving that age, marital status and motherhood need not come in the way of sports.
But they say a healthy world begins with a healthy mother, and, maybe, the best inspiration would be for the older women in every homestead to get into a little sport. It can begin with a pair of shoes and a few small steps at a time. The boons of regular sport and exercise can be experienced even by busy middle-aged mums who perhaps need a few lessons in self-care themselves. High on exercise endorphins, with stronger hearts and clearer minds, playing alongside their daughters, a more-level playing field will be created. And it will be easier for women to raise each other up, smash the patriarchy and break the glass ceiling if we all have a bit of muscle on us.
Genesia Alves is a writer and mother of three children.