Women in Sport: extensive action needed to support policy considerations

​​​​​​​​​The recently-published Draft Policy on Women in Sport identifies a number of barriers to women entering and excelling in sports but fails to propose any concrete actions to tackle these issues

The participation of women in sports from a young age is still inadequate, as opportunities and resources remain imbalanced. The government has recognised the long road ahead and the work that needs to be done, and has acknowledged that the participation of women in sport has to be driven at a systematic and policy level.

On 21 April 2023, the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (DSAC) released the Women in Sport Draft Policy (Draft Policy). While the Draft Policy recognises the past discrimination and lack of funding that women have faced when entering the sporting arena, it still has a long way to go to institutionalise the necessary action.

At the recent Women's Day celebrations, President Cyril Ramaphosa reiterated the significance of women in sport, and congratulated the South African sportswomen who have been flying the national flag high. However, he noted that these impeccable sportswomen should be paid equally, and even more in certain circumstances, than their male counterparts. He has also written in his newsletter that it should be considered an affront to our women athletes that they still earn less than their male counterparts, especially considering the recent achievements of some of our national teams.

The women's netball team, the Spar Proteas, put on a stellar performance at the Netball World Cup held in Cape Town, and currently rank sixth in the world. The women's football team, Banyana Banyana, is currently the reigning Women's Africa Cup of Nations champions and they delivered an exceptional performance at the FIFA Women's World Cup. In February, South Africa played host to the T20 Cricket World Cup, where the national women's team made history as the first South African team to reach the final. These examples only reflect a fraction of the numbers of South African women who continue to excel, despite the systemic obstacles they face.

Unpacking the Draft Policy

The Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture (the Minister), in the foreword to the Draft Policy, stated that, "Although women and girls account for more than half of the world`s population and despite the growing participation of women in sport and physical activity at all levels, there is still an uneven landscape for women in decision making and leadership roles. Women are significantly under-represented in management, administration, coaching and officiating, particularly at the higher levels."
Through the Draft Policy, the Minister outlines a series of measures that will promote and support women in sports, and sets out programmes that will address the gender disparities that are currently rife in sporting codes and structures.

The underlying problem statement of the Draft Policy acknowledges that there is gender inequality in sport, and this is evident at all levels of participation and in the coaching, technical officiating, and administrative areas. Women are unable to access talent development and opportunities to transition into different sport-related roles, as pathways do not exist, or multiple factors limit their progression.

The Draft Policy is in line with global policy frameworks and trends in attempting to address the various challenges women and girls face in sports associated with race, disability, age, religion, culture, geographical location, and sexual orientation, including those belonging to the LGBTQI+ population, transwomen, and women with different sexual development.
The Draft Policy acknowledges that women face numerous intersecting barriers which negatively affect their participation in, promotion and access to decision-making power and transformation in sport. While the Covid-19 pandemic affected all sports, it also widened the gender gap and exposed women to increased levels of gender-based violence.

What the Draft Policy proposes

There are various barriers to women's participation in sports which the Draft Policy identifies, along with proposed actions and interventions. The barriers include:

  1. Gender inequality and discrimination
  2. Biological and socio-cultural factors and poverty
  3. Lack of funding, sponsorship and remuneration
  4. Lack of women in leadership positions
  5. Transgender, intersex athletes, sex-verification and testosterone levels
  6. Gender-based violence (GBV) in sport
  7. Lack of role models and gender stereotypes
  8. Lack of media representation and exposure
  9. Lack of access to grassroots level sport
  10. Lack of access to high-performance sport
  11. Lack of equipment and attire
  12. Lack of skills and capacity development

However, the proposed actions and interventions are primarily directed at other entities, and are relatively vague about action. Stakeholders such as the National Sport Federations, the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, sports clubs and schools are called upon to develop guidelines, internal policies and procedures to achieve the policy goals.

Potential issues with implementation

The DSAC has indicated that the implementation of the Draft Policy is to be realized in collaboration with the various relevant stakeholders. It provides that the roles and responsibilities of the key stakeholders who will implement the Draft Policy will only be finalised shortly before the Draft Policy is taken through the entire parliamentary process. This is concerning, because implementation is arguably the most vital part of the Draft Policy, and the public and stakeholders are being given little opportunity to analyse these key elements before it is approved.

Other issues, such as inadequate infrastructure as a means of access and lack of childcare facilities, lack of parental support, and safety issues are mentioned as barriers preventing women from fully participating in sport, but no actions or interventions are proposed.

Extensive contemplation needs to take place before the Draft Policy is finalised. Most actions and interventions proposed in the Draft Policy merely state that further guidelines should be developed. The Draft Policy appears to be incomplete in its conception and needs considerably more elaboration. If the teeth of the policy is left to industry, with little guidance, disparities are likely to persist.


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