What has been the public response to Equality League? How can people get involved?
MG: Overwhelmingly positive. My inbox is inundated with strange and wonderful requests from other nonprofit organizations that need our resources to get their efforts across the finish line to executives, from the major leagues to a Brazilian body-building duo.
We welcome our colleagues and the public to alert us of gender discrimination in sports through the contact form on our website: eqleague.org. We believe in collaboration to accelerate solutions, so whenever possible, we will mobilize our resources to advance women’s rights through sports.
Human Rights Watch has highlighted the fact that many major sporting events are held in countries known for their human rights abuses. Can you talk to us about the recent World Cup in Russia?
MW: I find that a universal challenge to our work is that most people are unaware that in many parts of the world women and girls struggle to play sports.
Billions of people worldwide watched the World Cup. Most fans would say they don’t want to sit in stadiums workers died to build. Yet most World Cup fans are unaware that 21 workers died to deliver a dozen stadiums or that North Korean slave labor built one of the World Cup stadiums. These abuses are also in violation of FIFA’s human rights policy.
The causes for women and girls being denied the human right to play sports can be war, conflict and poverty. More often, though, the hurdles are legal, cultural, religious and economic. If there are funds for a soccer team, they will always go to purchase uniforms or coaching for the boys. Young women in Afghanistan who trained and worked hard to be on the national cycling team found their donated bicycles were looted, and their coach was attempting to marry them.
In many countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, sports for women are called “steps of the devil.” However, all these countries have courageous women athletes who are fighting to knock down these barriers, and the governments aspire to host major tournaments. That is where our leverage for reform lies.
Research shows that participation in sports can help young women develop confidence and lead to long-term career success. How do sports develop these skills?
MG: Sports are a tool of socialization. We learn goal setting, commitment, communication, collaboration, conflict resolution and “sportsmanlike” conduct, which are integral to working with (or against) others to achieve any desired end. While sports develop leaders, it is important to note that they also develop “followers” whose distinct skills contribute to the collective effort.
You are both involved with “Afghan Cycles,” a documentary that tells the story of young women cyclists who ride across the country despite the cultural barriers and gender taboos. What drew you to this story?
MG: Another member of Equality League, Shannon Galpin, invited us as producers on the film, and we were honored to accept. The film stands alone as a work of art, but it is also an invaluable vehicle for organizations such as ours. It provides visual proof of the barriers we describe and seek to raise support from grantmakers and funders.
What action are you hoping results from raising awareness of these women?
MG: We take on issues that we determine are in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the case of denying women access to bicycles, that violates their freedoms of movement and full participation in society. For those who live in rural areas without the infrastructure of paved roads or others without access to vehicles or public transportation, the bicycle enables them to access education, health care and economic opportunities that help them realize their full potential. Our goal for raising awareness for the women in the film is to develop support for the many initiatives focused on this topic worldwide.
In a previous issue of Women & Wealth Magazine, Jacki Zehner, chief engagement officer of Women Moving Millions, shared her thoughts on documentary film as a change agent. How do you see the role of film as a catalyst for change?
MG: Documentary films and their companion social impact campaigns are powerful tools. One mustn’t underestimate the influence of visual representation. It is true that situations must be seen to be believed – and that it inspires social action. Jacki has been instrumental in our success by connecting “Afghan Cycles” with funders and introducing me to a producer of “The Tale” movie about writer/director Jennifer Fox’s childhood experience of abuse by her running coach. Our first event was a pre-broadcast screening and discussion at HBO to which we invited sports influencers who we are now working with to help destigmatize conversations on the difficult topic of child sexual abuse in sports. We are also collaborating with athlete survivors, Champion Women and Darkness to Light to teach children, coaches and their parents about how to recognize and prevent abuse.
Both of you are focused on shining a light on gender inequities in sports. Have you always been passionate about this topic?
MW: I was a tomboy growing up in Tennessee, and sports were key to my life at every stage. American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) had no leagues for girls when I was growing up, so I kicked my way onto the only soccer team for my age group: a boys’ team. Playing on tennis teams eased a transition to a new high school – and later in life when I moved to New York. Indeed, wherever I am in the world, from Lebanon to Congo to Guatemala, kicking a ball or swatting a badminton racket is the best way to have an instant connection with local people. Sports are truly a universal language.
MG: Growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, girls and boys were afforded the same access to sports, and I took for granted the abundance of opportunities. My awareness and subsequent advocacy work on gender inequities in sports only developed three years ago when I invited women from eight countries to join my home state’s iconic seven-day, 500-mile RAGBRAI bicycle ride to promote female sports participation as a human right.
From those young women, I learned of all the barriers that exist around the world. I met a Pakistani Olympic swimmer who cut her hair and pretended to be a boy for four years in order to obtain access to a public pool from which girls were prohibited. Another woman, an Iranian snowboarding champion, was arrested by police as she was training for the ride, for they claimed riding a bicycle was illegal. In addition, a Saudi mountaineer actually learned how to ride a bicycle while on the ride, for women and girls in Saudi Arabia were only granted permission to ride in 2013 – albeit wearing head to toe abaya and riding only in circles with their male guardians supervising. Those young women inspired me to become an activist at the tender age of 50. This unanticipated work has proved to be both the most challenging and rewarding of my life.