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Women in Sport in Africa

Challenges and Opportunities for Women in Sport in Africa

Lombe Mwambwa (General Secretary of the Zambian National Organisation for Women in Sport, Physical Activity and Recreation (NOWSPAR)).

19th March 2013, University of Chichester

The AWF 2013 Seminar Series opened with AWF Scholar, Lombe Mwambwa, giving a fascinating look into the challenges and opportunities for women in sport in Africa. Fifty undergraduate and doctoral students, staff, guests and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Chichester listened to Lombe describe her personal sporting history, give an outline of NOWSPAR, and explain the different barriers women who participate at all levels of sport in Africa face.

Lombe Mwambwa presenting in the AWF Seminar Series

Lombe began her presentation by amusingly reflecting on her own sporting youth and how her ability in traditional sports like volleyball did not match her ability in more leisurely pursuits such as chess. This initial interest in sport did not leave her and was instrumental for her involvement in NOWSPAR. NOWSPAR is a women’s rights non-governmental organisation (NGO) that promotes women’s rights to and through sport. Lombe explained how NOWSPAR was established in 2006 and with its seven staff and over one hundred volunteers supports programmes in five of the ten provinces in Zambia. According to NOWSPAR’s focus, women should have rights to choice, opportunity, and capacity in every section of sport.

The presentation soon moved to the (dis)organised position of sport in Africa. Lombe described how sport in Zambia is only seen as recreation and leisure, not a route for upward social mobility or part of a health and physical activity agenda. Men’s football is the largest area of growth in sport in the country – a topic which was returned to in the question and answer session.

Lombe then explored the economic, political, cultural, and social challenges of sport, highlighting a range of influential women ranging from Olympic athletes to local sport development workers. All have had to directly challenge the dominant sports structure in order to advance women in sport. A brief overview of the issue of women’s leadership in sport was facilitated by recent NOWSPAR research into national sport board representation. All data showed a trend of decreasing percentages relating to women in sports leadership roles apart from the numbers of women as General Secretaries, which had increased. Lombe warned that there were women who wanted to be elected into these roles, but greater skills, training and awareness was needed to break down conservative barriers.

The future work of NOWSPAR concluded Lombe’s presentation. The NGO aims to:

  • Capacitate sport based NGOs and associations to address gender issues
  • Raise public awareness and consciousness on women’s right to sport
  • Advocate for government and related stakeholders’ commitment to fulfil their obligations on sport and women’s rights

Lombe brought her presentation to a close with an insightful reminder: “I’m sure the issues in Zambia are not too different to the issues in the UK today, the context is maybe different but the issues are the same”.

A brief question and answer session followed Lombe’s presentation:

Ian Hamilton (Co-ordinator for Sport & Fitness Management within the Sport Development and Management department (SDM) at the University of Chichester) asked what needed to change about women’s leadership in relation to the NOWSPAR figures Lombe had presented. Lombe highlighted a bottom-up approach that targeted women at the grassroots level as a potential avenue to enhance leadership numbers. Dr Elizabeth Pike (Chair of the AWF) added that this issue had been given recent spotlight by the UK Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation who had recently published figures regarding the UK situation on women in sports leadership positions.

Dr Anita White commented that  abuse and gender-based violence in sport was an issue in the UK and asked how Zambia was addressing it. Lombe outlined how lobbying and pressure was grounded in evidence-based research conducted by NOWSPAR. Surprisingly from questionnaires collected asking about women and sport, these issues were as prominent as more recognisable issues such as access to facilities and greater participation levels. Despite this, dominant sports organisations dismissed the concerns about violence against women as domestic-based rather than sport-based. However, further cases have been brought to the attention of NOWSPAR and policy and legislation is starting to be constructed via working groups, in which NOWSPAR is playing a central role.

Chris Peckett (3rd Year SDM student) asked what impact the recent Zambian men’s football team triumph in the African Cup of Nations was having on the women’s team, if any. Lombe responded by drawing attention to the relative lack of investment in women’s sports compared with men’s sport: “Women are not invested in because they don’t win, but men’s teams get invested in because they win”. Lombe claimed that greater investment would lead to women’s teams potentially matching men’s team’s successes.

Jordan Matthews (AWF Clerk) asked about the relationship between NOWSPAR as an NGO and any potential National Olympic Committee (NOC) Women and Sport Commission in Zambia. Lombe revealed that the NOC was slow in forming a Commission but that NOWSPAR were constantly reminding them of their obligation. Indeed, training, networks and information have been shared between the two groups, but there continues to be a lack of focus at the lower levels of sport – an area the NOC argues it has less focus on and responsibility toward. Despite this, a reciprocal relationship is growing.

Dr Elizabeth Pike closed the seminar by thanking Lombe, the attendees, and the University of Chichester for their support of the event. Dr Pike also highlighted the projects the AWF was involved with and the next scholars in the AWF Seminar Series.