Analysis

There are many ways in which women can win

Jos Dirkx

Let's not patronise women with public holidays, holidays and meaningless events. Rather give women the space and opportunity to inspire each other.

The South African women's hockey team is but one example of women working their hardest and fighting to be their best. (Daniel Berehulak, Getty Images)

It was 1995 and I was living in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, with my family. My brother and I had raised money for school supplies for a school in a village about an hour outside of the capital.

We decided, at 12 and 13 and being two quite athletically inclined middle-schoolers, that instead of only buying pencils and notebooks (which, let's be honest, really wasn't that exciting) we'd also buy sport equipment.

Born in Brazil, we were football fanatics by default and made the executive decision that buying football gear for the school was surely a better investment.

A month later, we went back to see how the football gear had been received. I'll never forget what we returned to.

On a dusty patch of sand, which served as the soccer pitch with two shoes in each corner symbolising goals posts, schoolgirls were playing a game of football. I don't remember if there were 11 players on each side, nor do I remember if each position was filled. But, I won't forget the girls running in the 5pm dusk, with the hot, West African wind at their backs. Their bare feet kicked up weightless dust, heels grazing the ground with soil breaking free from the red earth, lifting off into faint clouds.

They were engaged in their game, bodies covered in sand and sweat, carrying determined looks on their faces – much like the expressions we've recently seen carried on the Olympic stage by the world's best athletes. Along the sidelines, the boys stood, watching eagerly.

Fifteen years, five countries and three continents later, I found myself in Cape Town; presumably at the envy of my European and North American friends, with the 2010 Fifa World Cup fast approaching. As all of us here at that time can recall; the adverts, the articles, the merchandise and the vibe around the tournament filled the air with excitement and anticipation, in eager expectation of what the world's biggest championship would bring.    

But, this raised questions I couldn't let go of.

In a country praised for equality reflected in its universally celebrated Constitution, where were the South African female footballers? Was it really necessary for us to be bombarded with images of bikini-clad footballer's girlfriends seductively holding soccer balls, gracing sports calendars and magazines? And, what was up with the idea that we had to bask these male athletes in fame and fortune for playing a game I had witnessed 12-year-old Senegalese girls play for nothing but joy?

Being of Dutch heritage, I value football immensely and I appreciate a good match. I am the first to admit watching our Oranje boys receive second place during the World Cup was a true joy.

But these questions so clearly point out the inequalities between women and men, on and off the field. Full of perhaps somewhat naïve determination, I called the South African Football Association with, what I can look back on now and say were most likely very annoying questions, and received permission to do a documentary on the South African national women's team, Banyana Banyana.

Through the interviews with these players, and after hearing their stories, I knew I'd spent time with women I believe are the pillar of the South African community.

Fearless female athletes that, despite judgments from their communities, country and the world, despite traditional gender barriers deterring girls and women from sports participation, and despite a lack of access to sport, have played their game of football with such ferocity and talent, they gained a spot in the 2012 Olympics. Women, who with their strong legs, short hair and, according to society, "boy-ish" looks, go against cultural images of beauty, and do so with pride and strength. Women, who play for nothing but the love of the game, (because it surely isn't about the money or the fame), even though this comes at the high cost of discrimination, assaults, and at times as reflected in the case of Eudy Simelane, rape and murder.

We find ourselves celebrating yet another national Women's Month, and a few weeks ago, Women's Day. And no, it is most definitely not Women's Day "every day". If it were, we'd receive equal pay and equal treatment, for starters.  

Some of us undoubtedly are wondering why and what we are celebrating in the first place. I've read enough articles over the last few days, arguing that Women's Day and Women's Month are a waste of money, and that efforts are better geared towards actually building gender equality. I don't entirely disagree; having a "day off" doesn't make the extreme sexism, deep-rooted patriarchy, un-paralleled violence and unequal opportunities for girls and women go away. It goes without saying that we still have a very long way to go towards creating gender parity in South Africa; the statistics shock me every day, and I work in the space.

These are real issues. And they require real solutions fuelled by a country with really dedicated people.

I'm not asking you to forget that Lulu Xingwana, minister of women, children and people with disabilities (not entirely sure what that name implies, but, let's move along) and her department overspent by several billion rands on a trip to New York. Nor am I suggesting you forget the unavoidable, massive social problems that will arise as a result of recent budget cuts for South Africa's oldest NGOs.

But if Women's Month means nothing to you, and this August will come and go like any other, then do me a favour; be inspired by an under celebrated group of South Africa's most inspiring women; the athletes. Sure, we've raised the spotlight on Caster Semenya, but less so because of her athletic gift and more so because of her gender. We've also briefly spoken of Sunette Viljoen, and Banyana appeared on the pitch.

But now that you have watched talented female athletes compete at the top of their game at the Olympics, or if you have supported your daughter when she played her heart out in a football match, remember the strength, pride and courage sport provides girls and women.

There are many roles women can play, and many ways in which women can win. Let appreciation, encouragement and respect through sport be your one step closer to gender equality this August.

Jos Dirkx is the founder and director of Girls & Football SA

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