By Dorcas Jonah
Angel (not her real name) is a native of Bwari Area Council of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and is the first child in a family of six, where the father is a farmer and mother a petty trader.
Angel loved gymnastics and wished to become a star, leading to her parents enrolling her in a coaching class at age five.
At 10, Angel was already doing well and representing her school in competitions.
But her dream of becoming a full-time gymnast was cut short when her gymnastics coach raped her when she turned 15.
“This is what big girls do. At 15, you should explore other things. Being my lover will make you grow big and strong,” was what her coach told her before she was abused.
Out of fear of stigmatisation her parents forced her into marriage, abruptly ending Angel’s dream of becoming a gymnast.
Angel’s story is the story of many young women who would have excelled in sports but whose dreams and aspirations were truncated simply because of their gender.
The abuse and discrimination women face in sports occur in different forms, such as physical, sexual, emotional and systemic, while they also face exploitation through athlete-trafficking.
For many Nigerian women, participation in sports presents an opportunity to escape poverty and create a better future for themselves, even though it comes with a heavy price for many.
Engaging in sports activities is a lifeline for the willing Nigerian girl-child.
It can provide a safe haven from poverty and crime, while also teaching valuable life skills such as teamwork, discipline and perseverance.
A recent study shows that there are 1.9 million fewer women than men playing sports regularly (at least once per week).
In spite of the importance of sports to women, many factors have continued to hinder their participation.
These include parental influence, discouragement, unavailability of standard facilities and equipment, coping with societal and academic stress, and poor government policies.
A former Director of Sports, FCT Sports Council, Mrs Dilichukwu Onyedinma, said over time there has been systemic discrimination and mistreatment of women in sports.
She said that before the present generation, parents almost did not allow their girl-children to participate in sports at all, as they believed that some activities were meant for men.
As time went on and more women engaged in sports, it was difficult for government and other stakeholders to treat women equally as their male counterparts.
“Just as we realised that women can also do certain sports, society is also realising that there’s no difference between a man and a woman during competition.
“So, this is why all these differences in allowances and conditions of camping and the rest should not be there.
“We can’t rule out the fact that discrimination of women in sports has always been there. But, as we are coming up, society is realising that there’s no need for it.
”I think we have come a long way to understand that there shouldn’t be this discrimination and mistreatment of women,” she said.
Speaking of a deliberate policy for women in sports by government, Onyedinma said that there are no particular policies targeted at encouraging women in sports.
The FCT Gymnastics Coach, Rose Verissimo, corroborated Onyedinma, saying government has no policy for women in sports but it is rather busy focusing on male athletes.
“It is mostly the women that will go out and represent the country, win major trophies and bring pride and honour to the country, while the men don’t bring anything.
“But over time the men are the ones who are given special preference, good accommodation, allowances and vehicles.”
Verissimo, who is also the Technical Director of the Gymnastics Federation of Nigeria, said female gymnasts in the FCT have been topping the chart in terms of medals won for years now.
”But the FCT Administration has failed to recognise them as it should be.
“Women in sports in FCT are only considered when the men are okay. The men are enjoying the money more than the women and the women are suffering,” she lamented.
Verissimo’s point is not out of place, considering that the Nigerian women’s basketball and football teams have out-performed their male counterparts in the past two decades.
The same applies to the country’s Olympic contingents over the same period.
As Jide Alaka, a sports enthusiast, pointed out: “Tobi Amusan is Nigeria’s first-ever world champion and record-holder. All 12 gold medals Nigeria gathered at the Commonwealth Games in 2022 were also won by women.
“The World Athletics Championships yielded two medals — one gold, and one bronze. Female athletes won both.”
The President, Association of Former Female Athletes of Nigeria, Dr Toyin Aluko, said one major discrimination women face in sports is lack of encouragement from the men.
Narrating what she went through, Aluko said she first experienced it when she retired as a handball player and decided to go into coaching.
“I decided to go into coaching and I told my national handball coach who was still in service then about my intentions, but he told me to go into sports organising.
“In Nigeria, coaching is a male-dominated profession and, being a young girl taking an interest in coaching, my national coach who I felt should encourage me ended up discouraging me. But I didn’t allow that to determine my future.”
She said when she was employed by the then National Sports Commission (now Federal Ministry of Sports Development), it was as a coach in training because the secretary to the National Institute for Sports (NIS) highly recommended her.
“During national and international competitions, the said coach won’t add my name even on the female teams. He will only put his name as the coach,” Aluko said.
She also said that she had studied the situation in Nigeria and that there are very few teams that have female officials, even in female teams.
Aluko also pointed at officiating as another area of sports where women are having participation problems.
However, the crux of the matter is in the fact that the Nigerian government says it is committed to building a nation devoid of gender discrimination.
Through this, the Nigerian government says it will guarantee equal access to political, social and economic wealth-creation and opportunities for women and men.
It also said it is developing a culture that places a premium on the protection of all, including women and children.
But, in view of what is on ground, can this really be said to be practicable?
A way out of this is what the Chairman of Sports Writers Association of Nigeria (SWAN) in the FCT, Bunmi Haruna, is proffering.
He said sports federations and agencies should provide an enabling environment for the inclusion of more women in sports governance in Nigeria.
Haruna said the contributions of women to the development of sports in Nigeria are well documented.
”This thereby makes it right to call on government, sports federations and parastatals to provide an enabling environment for more women to participate in sports governance in Nigeria.”
No doubt, women are battling so many hurdles just to participate in sports: from sex-testing to sexual harassment, and to wage differences, decision-making and management, the list is endless.
However, there are reasons to be hopeful.
For instance, the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand broke all sorts of records in the women’s game —- ticket sales, viewership, sponsorship and participation.
Also, female national team players in the U.S., England, Brazil, Australia, Norway and New Zealand now earn equal pay as their male counterparts.
In Nigeria, one organisation that is facilitating equality and a level-playing field in sports participation is the Fund, Educate, Empower and Develop (FEED) Sports.
FEED Sports is a non-governmental organisation that supports sports and education in Nigeria and has provided support to over 5,000 school children, including girls.
This is by introducing them to the sport of fencing and supporting them through school.
But stakeholders insist there should be more, just like in other aspects of national life.
They say government at all levels should be deliberate about the inclusion and participation of women in sports, as well as the eradication of all forms of abuses and discrimination.
They also suggest a horizontal and vertical collaboration by the government, the private sector and international organisations for Nigeria to come up with a national policy for women in sports.
Also, adequately punishing all forms of gender biases and abuse against women in sports will serve as a deterrent and increase the willingness to participate.
And this is why organisations such as FEED Sports should be supported as a way of promoting sports and encouraging girls to participate in sports in safe, secure and free environments.(NANFeatures)