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Melting the ice: Parents warm to girls’ participation in sport

© UNICEF/2010/Naser Siddique
Members of the girls sports team, dressed in their team uniform, practice their cricket skills.
By Naimul Haq

Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, 02 February, 2011 - When Yasmin was selected to join a local all-female sports team, she was ecstatic. One of 18 successful candidates picked from a pool of 1500 hopefuls, the shy 15 year-old eagerly awaited the chance to represent her district of Cox’s Bazaar, in the south-east of Bangladesh.

However, Yasmin’s socially conservative parents had other ideas, and on the day of the team’s first practice match, Yasmin was suddenly withdrawn. Yasmin’s father, local farmer Abul Bashar, was vehemently opposed to the idea of his grown daughter playing sport in public, and Yasmin was replaced by her younger sister, Jesmin.

“My father was furious at me for participating in a programme that involves playing in public,” says a disappointed Yasmin. “Now I watch my sister and others practicing in the stadium and I feel guilty. Such an opportunity will never come again”.

In a community where adolescent girls are expected to maintain strict purdah (a religious practice whereby women avoid being seen by men who are not directly related to them) Yasmin was not the only girl to face difficulties convincing her parents of the merits of sport for girls. 

A controversial idea
In November last year, UNICEF Bangladesh in cooperation with partner NGO, BRAC, launched the Cox’s Bazaar female sports team - the first of its kind - as part of the ‘Empowerment of Adolescents’ project which is using sport as a vehicle to tackle development issues.

Players were selected from ‘Kishori Clubs’ (UNICEF-supported adolescent clubs) run by BRAC where groups of local adolescents meet twice weekly to discuss issues that affect them, including gender discrimination, personal hygiene, and the right to education.

The Kishori Club initiative was designed to give adolescents a voice and empower them to act as change-makers in their communities. But, as Yasmin and others have learned, change can be slow to come.

“When we first came up with the idea of organizing a sports team for adolescent girls, most parents were not supportive”, recalls Adolescent Programme officer, Abdul Monaf. “While on the one hand, the girls showed tremendous interests, on the other, parents refused”.

© UNICEF/2010/Naser Siddique
Bapi Dey. 12, a member of the Cox’s Bazaar girls’ cricket team, talks to her parents about how much she enjoys playing.
Old habits die hard
“We were sure that people would eventually understand the need for children’s sports” explains Kishori Club Programme Organiser, Nilima Nahid Sultan, “so we began speaking to people - sometimes individually, sometimes in groups - to try to convince those who seemed firm on maintaining old traditions”. A group of parents, religious leaders and others who had reservations about the launch of the sports team were also invited to a series of day-long motivation sessions and given a chance to air their concerns.

I told them “who will marry my daughter if people found out that she has been playing out in public? recalls Razia Begum, mother of twelve year-old Sumaiya Nasrin who is now a lead run-scorer for the team. “I was afraid that it would be a shame for the family”.

In the end, it was often parents themselves who persuaded others that the sports team should go ahead. “I believe that regular participation in sports can help in the intellectual growth of individuals,” says Minati Dey, mother of Mita Dey captain of the team. “So I spoke to several parents and I managed to convince them”.

 “We really melted the ice at those motivation sessions,” concludes Monaf, adding, “They worked so well that I even had requests from religious leaders asking me to include their daughters in the team!”

A dream come true for proud parents
While not all parents were won over, many in the community are now strong supporters of the team and have become advocates for girls’ participation in sport.
Nurul Islam, father of cricketer Bulbul Akhter, works as a caretaker at the local stadium. “I always dreamed that one of my children might play in the stadium where I work” he says, beaming with pride. “Now my dream has come true”.

UNICEF is working to expand this project, and form female sports teams in other parts of the country. It is hoped that girls will be given the chance to play not just cricket, but football, hockey and basketball.

This project is funded by the UK National Committee for UNICEF as part of the International Inspiration project, an initiative that aims to enrich the lives of 12 million children in 20 countries through the power of sport and play.



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