The world of sports is not just a platform for physical prowess and competition but a reflection of the societal dynamics that govern our lives. While sports have the potential to empower and elevate, they are not immune to the scourges of society, particularly violence against women and girls (VAWG). This critical issue is not just a violation of human rights but a public health crisis that undermines the ethos of sportsmanship and integrity.
The end of August brought a glaring example of VAWG in sports in the highly publicised incident involving the President of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), Luis Rubiales, and Spanish football player Jenni Hermoso. His unsolicited act of kissing her on the lips during the award ceremony that followed Spain’s victory at the Women’s World Cup— the most-viewed female sporting event of all time — overshadowed much of what should have been a celebration and catapulted the issue of VAWG into the limelight. The United Nations Human Rights Office reacted on X, formerly Twitter, saying that everyone had a responsibility to “call out and challenge such abuse” and hoped the incident would “Make this a turning point.”
VAWG is symptomatic of “structural injustice, cemented by millennia of patriarchy,” as noted by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his message marking this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. He points out that “We still live in a male-dominated culture that leaves women vulnerable by denying them equality in dignity and rights.” This culture of gender inequality and harmful social norms legitimises men’s dominance and normalises violence against women. Consequently, the sports arena has at times been the site of some of the most flagrant cases of sexism and VAWG. Female athletes frequently endure sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, with the associated fear of reprisal, stigma, and negative publicity often silencing victims. This silence fosters a climate of impunity, allowing offenders to escape accountability. Addressing this critical issue is essential for leveraging sports as a domain for advancing gender equality and empowering women and girls everywhere.
In 2023, UN Women, UNESCO, and the Global Spotlight Initiative – a partnership between the European Union and the United Nations aimed at eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls – published a comprehensive handbook titled “Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls in Sport.” This resource provides practical tools and strategies for combating VAWG within the sports sector and emphasizes collaborative approaches to effectively address this issue. The handbook outlines the various manifestations of VAWG in the sporting context:
- Sexual Abuse: The prevalence of sexual violence in sports is disturbingly high, encompassing acts ranging from rape to harassment and ‘sextortion,’ where authority is misused for sexual gain. According to UNESCO, 21% of women and girls globally have suffered sexual abuse in a sporting environment during childhood, nearly double the rate of their male counterparts.
- Physical Abuse: Violence in sports is not confined to physical contact disciplines. It includes any physical harm inflicted upon athletes, from assault to withholding medical treatment. Findings indicate that 31.8% of female athletes have faced punitive excessive training, while 10.6% have been subjected to physical beatings.
- Psychological Abuse: It can come in the form of coaching abuse, peer abuse and spectator abuse. Examples range from coaches demeaning female athletes, teammates imposing degrading tasks as part of hazing, to spectators directing verbal abuse at athletes during events.
- Online or Digital Violence: The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games shed light on the extent of online abuse faced by female athletes, with a staggering 87% of abusive tweets targeting women and two black female athletes bearing the brunt of this harassment. Studies reveal that a significant portion of this online abuse is sexualised, affecting the mental health and privacy of the athletes involved.
- Economic Abuse: Economic exploitation in sports often sees athletes, especially women, forced into financial dependency. Abusers may manipulate financial resources, limit access to funds, and restrict the capacity to earn or pursue education.
- Bullying and Microaggressions: Sporting environments are also plagued by bullying and microaggressions, which manifest as racist, sexist, or homophobic comments and behaviours that belittle and sideline individuals. These actions contribute to a hostile and exclusionary atmosphere in sports.
It is important to note that VAWG in sports can affect all women and girls, regardless of their age, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. However, certain groups of women and girls are at particular risk, such as LGBTQIA+ athletes, athletes with disabilities, and athletes from disadvantaged racial, ethnic, migration, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
According to the handbook, which is aimed at sports practitioners and policymakers at all levels of play, from recreational and school sports to international competitions wishing to address VAWG in sport, it is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach involving education, awareness-raising, policy development, and enforcement. Key to this is educating all sports participants about the issue, its indicators, and prevention tactics. Sports organisations must set and enforce clear policies and procedures to define, report, and manage incidents of violence, alongside providing comprehensive victim support services such as counselling and legal assistance.
Central to progress is the cultural perception of gender in sports. Leadership must prioritise gender equity, ensuring fair resource distribution and curtailing demeaning actions such as appearance-based comments or public insults. Shifting away from the toxic “win-at-all-costs” and hyper-masculine attitudes is crucial, with a focus instead on sports as a conduit for personal growth, transcending the narrow pursuit of victory. Studies show participation in sports can increase girls’ confidence by as much as 80%.
Empowerment and prevention programs that teach women and girls about their rights and how to handle violence, thereby fostering an environment of self-advocacy and respect, are essential elements, too. Additionally, policy and legal reforms should ensure accountability and protective measures for reporting violence maintaining the confidentiality and safety of survivors.
Empowerment through economic and leadership opportunities further strengthens this preventive framework, creating a sports culture that values equality and deters abusive behaviour. By integrating education, policy enforcement, survivor support, and empowerment, the sports sector can create a safer space for women and girls, promoting a culture of equality and respect in sports and allowing them to participate fully and fearlessly.
The United Nations and its agencies, funds and programs are actively sensitising people about the issue, advocating for preventative measures, and aiding survivors. The organisation also strives to ensure that sports entities adopt comprehensive policies and procedures to prevent and confront VAWG effectively.
VAWG in sports is a multifaceted issue that requires a multifaceted response. It demands the active participation of policymakers, sports administrators, coaches, athletes, and the broader community to foster a culture of respect, equality, and safety. We can only celebrate the true spirit of sportsmanship and the empowerment it is intended to promote by addressing VAWG in sports.