FIFA’s U-17 Women’s World Cup was held in Jordan this past October. For the first time ever, these games were held in the Middle East and in a country that is currently surrounded by other nations experiencing much conflict and instability. In fact, the stadium in Irbid is mere miles away from the Syrian border and residents can often hear the sounds of bombs and artillery fire from across the border. I happened to have the good fortune to be in Jordan for the games and witness how young women footballers are regarded in a traditionally conservative part of the world. The experience was very emotional for me for a number of reasons.
As we watched the games and cheered on some extremely talented young women, I could not help but think about the other less fortunate young women and men were being bombed and killed in the neighboring areas of Syria, Iraq and others. However, as I looked around the stadium in Amman, I realized that I was also witnessing something incredible different from what one imagines regarding gender relations in Jordan. I have a strong feeling that Jordanian men and women of all ages have never come together in one place to cheer young Jordanian women playing any sport! The atmosphere in the stadium was electric – every Jordanian was there to support their young women players and they chanted and cheered despite their team getting beaten by the much stronger and more experienced Spanish team. Parents had brought their girls to witness other girls playing football in public – wearing hijab or not, shorts or not! Boys and girls, men and women were all united in supporting their young women playing football. It was truly a magical feeling. There has been much written about the power of sport in changing gender relations and in empowering girls and women1, but I was witnessing it first-hand!
“Sport has huge potential to empower women and girls” — Lakshmi Puri, UN Assistant Secretary-General and UN Women Deputy Executive.2
We often hear the phrase, “he plays like a girl” or “she doesn’t play like a girl.” How can we move away from this type of mentality that so generalizes and devalues female potential?3 One way is to invest in sports for young girls and women. Evidence shows that women and girls empowered through sport exhibit more confidence, discipline, good health, and success at all stages of their lives - from childhood, to adolescence to adulthood. Many organizations (like the UN, FIFA and others) recognize the importance of sport in empowering girls and have brought football to girls living in diverse backgrounds and circumstances, including within refugee camps for Syrians in Jordan.
MEDA does not implement any specific programming on sports for women and girls but instead focusses on empowering women and girls through improved participation in the economy – both at the household and enterprise levels. My experience at the U-17 Women’s World Cup was so magical that, although MEDA’s work is not related, I felt inspired to share my thoughts on the potential of sports to empower girls and women.
Some pictures from the games in Jordan:
 From the Field: Sport for Development and Peace in Action. Sport for Development and Peace International Working Group. http://assets.sportanddev.org/downloads/from_the_field_full_doc.pdf