Just keep fighting, you are not alone
By Marta Vieira da Silva, footballer, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador for women and girls in sports and UN Secretary-General’s SDG Advocate
In 1995, I was a 9-year-old girl living in the village of Dois Riachos, in the Northeast of Brazil. At that early age, I was already fighting to have the same opportunities as boys. I wanted to be out there on the playing field and scoring goals, even if the footballs were made of all sorts of improvised materials. It was hard to fight for myself. I was the only girl in that scenario, and, unfortunately, I was hurt, both physically and emotionally by those boys, and later by coaches and even by my community while I was claiming my rights. That loneliness gave me courage to immediately react and have the necessary drive to move on.
What I didn’t know then was that on the other side of the world, in Beijing, China, hundreds of women were also fighting for me. On September 15 of that year – the last day of the Fourth World Conference on Women – those women managed to finalize The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the most visionary agenda for the human rights of women and girls, everywhere. It was adopted by the United Nations and endorsed by 189 countries, committed to work on 12 critical areas: poverty; education and training; health; violence; armed conflict; economy; power and decision-making; institutional mechanisms; human rights; media; environment; and the girl child.
Looking at myself and the status of women and girls in the world twenty-five years later, brings me mixed feelings. Take sports as an example. On the one hand, in recent years, we have seen an upsurge in audiences supporting women’s sports. The latest Women’s World Cup was the most popular ever, with crowds celebrating women’s talent, strength, resilience and professionalism. Women’s movements in different countries are fighting for and winning access to practise sports and attend matches. There are, definitely, more women and girls playing sports nowadays in comparison to 1995.
On the other hand, no country in the world can say it has achieved gender equality yet. Women and girls still have much fewer opportunities to play or to have a career in sports in comparison to men and boys. Even when we do get the opportunity, the facilities, equipment and even the uniforms tend to be of a much inferior quality. We are still fighting not to be harassed or sexually abused. We are still fighting for visibility in the media, free from gender stereotypes. We are still fighting to have the same opportunities for leadership and decision‑making positions in sports organizations. We are still fighting for equal pay, because we play as hard as men’s teams.
But things can change. They did for the girls in Rio de Janeiro and in Buenos Aires who took part in the “One Win Leads to Another” joint programme to empower girls through sports by UN Women and the International Olympic Committee. They told me that many of them used to struggle to guarantee their space in the community sports fields just like I did, twenty-five years ago. Advances for women and girls in sports and in every area of society have been far too slow and uncertain, and we can no longer tolerate that.
Something that’s never changed in my life is my determination to keep fighting for what I believe in. I won’t give up advocating for the rights of women and girls to be who they want to be. And I am not the only one. I am accompanied by women, men, girls and boys with a common vision: achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls by 2030, as Goal 5 of the SDGs says. We’re aiming for a new “Generation Equality” no matter what our age, gender or background. Together, we’re building an equal future.
What does that future look like? It’s a world where we have equal rights to play, where we receive equal pay for equal jobs, regardless of our gender, where we share unpaid care and domestic work, where there is not one single case of sexual harassment or violence against women and girls, where health care services respond to our needs, and where women participate equally in politics and in decision-making in all areas of life.
If the sports ecosystem – governments, federations, leagues, clubs, teams, media, NGOs, international organizations, athletes, the private sector and others – take action to level the playing field for women and girls, sports can lead the way in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment across all of society. It can be one of the great drivers of gender equality, by teaching women and girls the values of teamwork, self-reliance and resilience. It can provide girls with social connections and a refuge from violence in their homes and communities and help them to understand their bodies and build confidence and the ability to speak up.
It demands more than political will, though. It demands coordinated action, right now. I know that, together, we can make it. So, in 2030, which is the deadline the world set to have accomplished all the 17 SDGs, I want to be able to look back and see the transformations for all women and girls in the world. And I will look back at the eyes of that 9-year-old girl that I was and say confidently to her: “just keep fighting, you are not alone”.
*The views expressed in this blog are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of UN DESA.
Photo: UN Women/Camille Miranda