Since the 1980s, there has been an increasing number of studies focused on violence against women (VAW) in sport, including sexual violence against female sportspeople by coaches, the normalisation and concealment of VAW in sport, male athletes’ violence against women, and sporting events as a catalyst for domestic violence and sex trafficking. However, it was only when #MeToo reached mainstream status in the 2010s that the rate of awareness about VAW in sports started accelerating as women and girls in professional sport across the world and different sports began speaking up publicly about the hidden sexual violence and abuse they had faced for years. Recent high-profile cases include: the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal that resulted in the US women’s national gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar being sentenced to prison in 2017 (his final appeal was rejected in June this year); the accusations of sexual assault by Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai against a top government official in 2021, after which she suddenly dropped out of the public eye, prompting the Women’s Tennis Association to make good on its threat to suspend all events in China; and Greek sailing Olympian Sofia Bekatorou whose allegations of sexual assault against a former coach kicked off Greece’s #MeToo moment.
However, sport may also hold the one of the keys to combatting VAW in communities. Anti-VAW advocates, activists, and organisations have recognised that sports can be a powerful tool for educating individuals, communities, and the public about VAW and to push for women’s human rights. Tackle Africa collaborates with 30 schools in Tanzania on a unique sports curriculum that includes lessons about child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM); Reclaim Childhood in Jordan uses sport to empower refugee girls by honing their leadership skills and helping them grow up healthy in violence-free spaces; and the Horn of Africa Development Initiative uses soccer to educate communities about gender equality while providing a safe space for female empowerment.
Additionally, many star athletes are global celebrities and powerful role models who are in a position to influence their fans on key social and cultural issues within and beyond the sporting arena, especially if they are on social media where sports fans are able to follow them. Even non-famous and non-professional sportspeople have influence in their sport, association, community, or club. While reports of male athletes being violent against women and girls are more common than ever, there are also many sportspeople who have actively used their platform to speak up against VAW, including William Gay, Russell Wilson, and Jillian Loyden who each campaign against domestic violence.
In light of the potential of sports to combat VAW, this list offers 16 actions that sports organisations and individuals who work in sports can take to prevent and stop VAW. Not all of them may be suitable for you but we hope that this list can serve as a useful starting point for taking action.
Introduction by Anushia Kandasivam and Regina Yau. Written, researched and compiled by Anushia Kandasivam. Additional research and content by Regina Yau.
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For Sports Organisations, Associations, Clubs, and Companies
Idea #1: Create a gender-equal workplace and sports culture
Make equality, equal opportunities, and equity the norm in your organisation by removing sexist and misogynistic practices and language. Many traditionally male-dominated sports still do not pay women equally or provide equal prize money to women, but that is slowly changing. Removing these inequalities is an easy step (and a good public-facing one) toward gender equality. Ensure your organisation addresses complaints and allegations immediately, efficiently, and fairly. Actively work toward appointing more female board members so that business decisions benefit from varied perspectives, and step up active support of female participation in all sports. Inequalities still persist in sport but some progress has been made in recent years and your organisation/club/association/company can be part of the gender mainstreaming movement. UK Sport has some starter resources and templates for anyone to use.
Idea #2: Incorporate an anti-VAW mindset and bystander action into staff and policies
Take a “whole organisation” approach to ingrain anti-VAW policies and bystander action into your organisation, including helping staff and stakeholders understand what VAW looks like, why it happens, and its prevalence in your community, state, or country. For example, in Canada, the BC Lions football team’s very successful “Be More Than a Bystander” campaign has grown into a league-wide initiative that includes mandatory VAW education sessions for all staff and players as part of its overall VAW policy. Implementing anti-VAW and bystander actions and policies in your community, university, or school sports club will not only benefit the women working in it, but also the wider community as people learn these safe and supportive behaviours and spread them into the wider community. And, of course, it will elevate your organisation’s reputation as a safe environment for everyone in the community.
Idea #3: Equip your team with the tools to prevent and stop VAW
Putting anti-VAW policies in place is a great first step, but employees, volunteers, and players will need the support of strong leadership, and tools and resources to equip them with the knowledge of what actions to take. Create clear codes of conduct and provide information and even training for how to actually be an active bystander, i.e., what actions to safely take to prevent or stop sexist language, harassment, discrimination and more. Look for resources from your local authorities or ministry of health. If that fails, search online and create a resource kit that fits your organisation and community. VicHealth has a good toolkit that can be a starting point.
Idea #4: Implement appropriate responses to VAW
Establish efficient and safe channels for reporting VAW to encourage and enable timely reporting, then ensure that appropriate action is taken. For example, if a player is accused of VAW, bar access to training or playing when first accused. Suspend or dismiss players found guilty, or do not sign players previously found guilty of VAW in court. Taking the opposite approach – treating the accused with kid gloves or not disciplining them – could broadcast a message and culture of misogyny and show that your organisation values financial investment over justice. As an organisation, you can even take more significant action such as suspending competitions in places or countries where VAW accusations are not taken seriously, like the Women’s Tennis Association did after China brushed aside tennis star Peng Shuai’s accusation of sexual assault against a former top government official.
Idea #5: Communicate your stand widely
One of the ways organisations can ensure that their anti-VAW and bystander action policies are practiced in their day-to-day business is through clear internal and external communications. Internally, all staff should be required to attend training sessions, provided easy access to the policy, and informed of the resources available. Communicate your anti-violence against women stand to the public through social media, your website, signage at your sports or community centre, on your kit, and through real-time action and activism and enforcement of policies. .
Idea #6: Support and participate in anti-VAW campaigns
There are always campaigns and projects run by government organisations and non-profits that you could attach your organisation to. Anti-VAW non-profits in particular are some of the most severely understaffed and underfunded in the world. They could use your help and not just financially. Use your clout as a local community organisation or national league to support or participate in their anti-VAW campaigns. Encourage your sportspeople (especially popular ones) and work in partnership with your local anti-VAW organisations to provide them with opportunities to participate.
Idea #7: Help fight and prevent human trafficking and domestic violence during championship seasons
It is increasingly well-documented that that large sporting events are a huge draw for sex traffickers and also a catalyst for domestic violence. Get involved with anti-human trafficking organisations and local authorities to see how your organisation can help fight human trafficking. Partner and/or collaborate with domestic violence organisations to support their services and educate sports fans. Take the opportunity presented by having a bigger or captive audience during these events to make clear your organisation’s policy on human trafficking, domestic violence, and other forms of VAW – like these organisations that created PSAs to be screened at the Super Bowl and on the jumbotron at a NASCAR Championship.
Idea #8: Align yourself to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals
Align your organisation/club/association/company to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically SDG 5 (achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls) and SDG 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions). SDG 16 addresses various forms of violence, including human trafficking and torture. Both these SDGs provide frameworks for mapping out where your organisation/club/association/company can contribute to the bigger fight to end VAW and achieve equality, and for developing a focussed action plan for genuine impact locally. If you need a starting point, do what Beyond Sport did by joining UN Women’s “Orange Your World” initiatives and the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, then build your efforts from there.
For Individuals Including Athletes and Other People Who Work in Sports
Idea #9: Be a feminist or feminist ally
Being a feminist or feminist ally means believing in equality of the sexes. Anyone can be a feminist. If you believe that women deserve equal opportunity to men in all aspects of their lives, then you already believe in feminist ideas. Now, act on your beliefs. Support equal opportunity in your sport or your sports club and demand equal representation. If you are a man, use your male privilege to get heard on issues of sexual harassment in sports, domestic violence in your community, and other VAW. Find like-minded people and work together to achieve your goals.
Idea #10: Be an active bystander
Being an active bystander means being aware that certain behaviours are inappropriate or recognising that someone is in danger and taking appropriate action. This can be anything from voicing your disapproval, distracting the perpetrator, or simply not laughing at a sexist joke. Participate in training on how to be an active bystander. If your organisation does not provide training, find resources online. Or try to persuade management to sign on to a training programme; there are many available in various countries or online, such as Football Onside, a specialised bystander intervention programme in the UK for the prevention of sexual and domestic violence and abuse in a professional sports setting.
Idea #11: Be proactive against VAW in sports
Be a leader in your sports club and in your sport by creating or catalysing programmes and campaigns to fight VAW. Find a local anti-VAW non-profit to support and lend them your voice and your clout, and participate in programmes to support survivors or to teach boys and girls about VAW and how to stop it. And make your stand clear – use your influence as a sportsperson to show survivors that they have your support and share your anti-VAW thoughts on social media.
Idea #12: Demand policies and action from your union, club, and association
Get together with your teammates and colleagues and ask your team leaders or your union to demand anti-VAW and zero-tolerance policies at your club or association. Use your clout to lobby the authorities. Demand policies for equal pay and equal opportunity in your sport, not just at your club but nationally. It took 34 years for Wimbledon to finally offer equal prize money to female tennis players; it does not have to take that long for your sport. Equal pay and opportunity may seem like just an economic issue but studies have shown that pay parity can reduce the threat of violence to women. Demand that action is taken to implement policies in a timely and fair manner.
Idea #13: Hold your club/association/organisation accountable
As you take a stand to support women, you can also hold your sport club or organisation accountable for providing equal opportunity and a safe space for women, but also for taking appropriate action against anyone accused of or found to be perpetrating VAW. Demand that policies be put in place to prevent and stop VAW, for safe and timely reporting, and for real action to be taken (investigation, suspension, banning, etc) against members who break the rules. For example, in 2020, seven women (including three female athletes) sued the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), holding the organisation accountable for failing to protect them from sexual assault by male athletes.
Idea #14: Create and practice personal zero-tolerance policy
If you are a man who is an athlete, working in sports-related industries, or even just a sports fan, get busy with creating and implementing your own zero-tolerance policy to make it clear to colleagues and teammates that you do not tolerate sexist behaviour and language. Do not be afraid to be called a “party pooper” or someone who “doesn’t get the joke.” Model healthy and respectful relationships with the women and girls around you because younger people – especially younger men and boys – might be watching how you behave and learning from you. If you are not sure where or how to begin, male ally organisations such as our partner MenChallenging provide ideas and strategies for men to challenge VAW, and you can check out this nifty list of tips they created for us last year on how men can influence their peers to stop VAW.
Idea #15: Check yourself and check on yourself
If you are male, make sure to check your own behaviour towards women and girls when you participate in sports in any capacity. It may seem obvious, but it takes work to overcome years of ingrained misogynistic and sexist behaviour. Think about the language you use, any subconscious sexist beliefs or behaviours you might have, and even how your manner may seem intimidating to women. Find resources online to help you change your behaviour or teach the people you lead how to change. Check on yourself – the fight against misogyny and VAW requires commitment, humility, and being uncomfortable, which may get stressful. Talk about it to someone you trust and get the support you need.
Idea #16: Stand firm in your anti-VAW beliefs
Stand firm in your beliefs when a teammate or colleague is accused of VAW. Step up and take a stance against such violence. If actively speaking out is not appropriate at the time, you can still take silent action such as unfollowing them on social media or assisting in any investigation if you can. Do not be afraid to be accused of not supporting the team. You are supporting millions of women who suffer from VAW and you are fighting against toxic masculinity, misogyny, and patriarchy, all of which also harm men.
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