Southern Africa: Give sportswomen an equal chance

Southern Africa: Give sportswomen an equal chance

Date: May 5, 2011
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It is humbling and inspiring to imagine what Southern Africa’s outstanding sportswomen had to do in order to reach the top.

Remember Mozambique’s “Maputo Express” Maria Motola? She broke the 1000 metre world record to become the first woman to cover that distance in less than two and a half minutes. She later broke the world indoor record for the same distance.

Then there is South Africa’s Caster Semenya, who won the 800 metre race at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin.

The latest addition to the list is Esther Phiri, a 24-year-old female boxer from Zambia. Her alias is the African Killer Bee.

Earlier this year in Lusaka, Phiri won her seventh international title. She defeated Columbian Lely Luz Florez and won both the Women International Boxing Organisation (WIBO) and Women International Boxing Association (WIBA) titles.

All three women champions struggled to reach the top of their game, first fighting gender stereotypes before they could fight to dominate in their respective sports.

Challenging stereotypes

Semenya’s story is still fresh in the minds of many Southern Africans. After winning the World Championships in 2009, she was forced to undergo what was termed a gender verification test after her rival complained about her dramatic improvement. The episode was a sad example of the widespread ignorance around issues of sexual identity and intersexuality. It took away from the issue which should have made headlines: her incredible athletic ability.

Motola’s trials were not as harsh. However, while in her teens Motola rebelled against traditional roles and played football on the boys’ team since there were no female leagues at the time. Back in the 1980s it raised many eyebrows.

Motola’s story is similar to Phiri’s. When Phiri decided to join boxing it was considered a male sport. To many people, she had ulterior motives for joining the sport.

“People used to laugh at me. They would say, ‘She’s mad. She’s mad!’ And they said I was just following the men to the gym,” she said.

It was not only Phiri who came under fire, her trainer Anthony Mwamba was also viewed with suspicion.

“At first when Esther came onto the scene everyone was saying, ‘No, no, he’s just spoiling her or maybe he’s sleeping with Esther.’ That’s what people were saying including the officials. But to me, I always had the vision, they didn’t know it, but I saw a champion the first time I saw Esther,” said Mwamba.

Phiri proved sceptics wrong in 2007 when she won her first international fight in Zambia.

“Zambia’s first ever international female boxing bout challenged gender stereotypes as the two exhibited professional boxing skills rivalling that of male counterparts,” commented Zambian writer Hone Liwanga after the fight. “The staging of the prestigious event on 18 March was not only good for the two female boxers or Zambia, but for gender activists as well. Boxing is known to be a man’s sport in Zambia, and indeed most of the world. The two women put that myth to rest as they competed in an action-packed 8-round bout.”

Painful beginning

Phiri’s fight is one shared by other Zambians; the difference is that unlike many she managed to pull herself up from a painful beginning and climb the ladder of success.

She lost her father at a tender age and due to lack of finances in the family she dropped out of school in the sixth grade. To help the family make ends meet, Phiri and her grandmother began selling groceries and second-hand clothes at Lusaka’s Soweto market.

To add to her difficulties, she became a single mother at age 16.

An international non-governmental organisation, Africa Directions, came to Phiri’s rescue. Africa Directions started an HIV-awareness project in Mtendere, where Phiri resided. The project combined health, education and sports.

Phiri was the only female in the boxing group. Her talent and dedication caught the eye of supervisors who referred her for further training with former Zambian amateur boxer Mwamba, who made it to the quarter finals at the 1988 Olympics.

From the time she walked into his gym, Mwamba said he saw a champion. So far he has not being disappointed.

Role models

Having proved themselves, these women are now role models. Motola has a road named after her in Mozambique. Semenya is a true heroine for many young South Africans. Phiri is now Zambia’s flag carrier and a role model for young Zambians.

Phiri encourages youth, especially young women, to concentrate on school and take up sports to keep busy.

“I would advise my fellow young Zambians to engage in sports as it would take up most of their time which they would spend drinking and engaging in many antisocial vices,” she says.

Motola and Phiri have proved what all girls and young women can achieve if given the opportunity. All it takes is a few more mentors like Mwamba to believe in them.

Mwamba says he treats Phiri just like his male trainees. “In a fight, women go for two minutes, but I give her three minutes, just like a man. I treat her just like a man. It’s to her advantage.”

Valentine Chanda is a Zambian journalist. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service which brings you fresh views on everyday news.


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