Safe spaces needed for sports and fitness

Safe spaces needed for sports and fitness

Date: December 9, 2011
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Healthy mind, healthy body – the two are undoubtedly linked. Yet incidents of sexual harassment and gender violence can hold back girls and women passionate about sport and fitness, either for fun and health, or as a career.

Even as 16 Days of Activism got under way, a Johannesburg karate instructor was seeking bail amid sexual assault accusations by nine of his students. Moreover, the abuse is alleged to go back years. A 35-year-old woman came forward, saying that as a teenager in 1988, the coach raped her at a hotel during a competition.

Earlier in the year, it was the world of football that came under the spotlight. South Africa, and the continent, celebrated World Cup 2010 in a joyous mood, blowing vuvuzelas left, right and centre, male and female fans celebrating Africa’s first hosting of the global mega-event. Yet, not so many months later, then Banyana Banyana coach Augustine Makalakalane was sacked, not because he failed to send the team to Germany for the Women’s FIFA World Cup, but amid accusations of sexual harassment.

Two former players, Nthabiseng “Moemish” Matshaba and left-back Gloria “Gloss” Thato accused the coach of sexual harassment. The duo explained that sexual favours played a big role in influencing the selection of Banyana Banyana players during the qualifiers for the World Cup. Former skipper Portia Modise later also provided testimony.

Dikeledi Sibanda is the coach and manager for the Johannesburg-based Chosen Few women’s football club, a team of 25 young black lesbian women from townships in and around Johannesburg. Sibanda recalls how the team was formed because the footballers did not feel safe at their different football fields.

“There was a need for a safe space for women who play soccer because of the discrimination, rape, and hate crimes that were happening in their local teams,” she says. “There was a lot of abuse by male coaches.”

According to Sibanda, most players do not talk about such incidents but expectations of sexual favours are not confined to national levels. “There was a girl who wanted to be a part of the A team because they were playing very well and they were going to places,” she explains. “So the coach said ‘lets go 50/50, if I promote you to the A team, in return what are you going to give me?’ and they started having an affair.”

If female athletes don’t feel safe on the fields and in fitness classes, what about in even more public spaces, such as on the way to and from the field, basketball court, gym, or track? Most physical recreation takes place after school and after work, and while male athletes may feel safe to make their way home at dusk, few female athletes would.

So, what’s the solution?

Given the important role physical activity plays in overall health, and the significant economic value of the sports industry, there is a need for government and organisations to ensure safe play and sports spaces.

Sibanda agrees, adding that these safe spaces must be widely available. “Some of the resources need to be close to townships or be at a central place where everyone will be able to access them, and the security must be tight,” she says. “And if it comes to it, police must patrol the streets like they did during the World Cup.”

For social worker Adele Govender from the Ekhaya Lethemba, there are precautions women can take. “We say that if you go out at night don’t do it by yourself, but go with a group,” says Govender. “We advise to get self defence, like pepper spray or a whistle, so that if someone attacks you on the way, you blow the whistle and someone can come to your assistance.”

For Hein Portwig, a student in Johannesburg, part of the solutions is investing more resources and training in female officials. “One thing that would help eliminate the problem is to bring in and train female coaches and officials,” he said.

Although added safety and security measure are good solutions for short term coping, what we really need is a fundamental shift in a culture that accepts any kind of abuse or harassment. Part of this is ensuring confidence to report any kind of sexual assault. In both examples cited above, the people remained quiet for such a long time before reporting the matter. Perhaps it is even more difficult for young athletes to disclose because of the close relationship they have with their coaches and instructors.

There is no doubt about it, exercise is part of a healthy body and a healthy mind. And in this era of facebook and video games, there are even greater concerns about the health of the next generation. Girls and women must have the same access and enjoyment to recreational public spaces as their male counterparts.

And this means government and organisations must give serious consideration to what this means – increased security, gender-friendly fitness programmes during daylight hours, etc. Above all, there must be awareness raising for both athletes and the entire sporting industry, to ensure that any abuse is not kept quiet, but shouted about as loud as a vuvuzela.

Mandla Masingi is a freelance writer based in South Africa. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service series for the 16 Days of Activism.





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