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Using sport as a tool to improve young people's sexual and reproductive health and rights advocacy

Sports has been endorsed as an innovative tool of social and sustainable development by the United Nations (UN, 2015; STĂNESCU et al., 2020). Sport is being widely adopted as a social tool by NGOs around the world to boost social campaigns, empower young people by providing them with life skills, and improve their mental and physical health (Asif, 2018). This study explores sport’s innovative role to improve sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) advocacy for young people in Pakistan.

Young people in Pakistan face a number of obstacles that hinder them from exercising fundamental SRHR, which is critical to reducing poverty and enhancing long-term health. SRHR is strongly linked to rights to life, liberty, health, choice, privacy, education, and inclusion (UNFPA). In a population of 200 million, of which young people constitute more than 60 per cent, the unavailability and unpopularity of SRHR has left young people vulnerable (F. Paracha, 2012).

Youth-led NGOs such as Kafka Welfare Organisation (KWO) are stepping into this gap, using sports as a social and development tool to boost SRHR advocacy campaign in Punjab, Pakistan. They integrate sports and SRHR advocacy campaigns and use sports fields as safe spaces. In these safe spaces, young people, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, colour or race, talk openly about SRHR issues, learning from Kafka’s mentors and coaches. Through specifically designed, team-based and objective-oriented sports/physical activities, young people learn life skills, such as leadership, critical thinking, tolerance, confidence, and empathy, and sports skills, such as soccer (Kay, 2009; Schulenkorf, 2010). In addition, they learn about sportsmanship on the field and learn social and moral values that are relevant in their daily lives (Asif, 2018). Lastly, sports gives girls awareness of their bodies, unsettles the gender order, and breaks down social barriers (Women Win).

Social sports programmes and physical activities help to improve mental and physical health of young people by reducing trauma, stress, anxiety and depression (Lyras, 2009; H Mirahmadi, 2016; Kubesch et al., 2003). At the same time, adoption of social values such as inclusion, acceptance, mutual respect, responsibility, discipline, and understanding of diversity help to counter discrimination and breakdown social barriers and isolation (Cardenas 2013; Johns et al., 2014; Hall, 2011; Lyras, 2009; Asif, 2018).

The study has used a qualitative method of open-ended interviews, and analysis of available documents, such as organisational reports and online articles to collect data. Three coaches from Kafka Welfare Organisation (KWO) and the Your Choice Your Life joint programme by KWO and International Youth Alliance for Family Planning (IYAFP) were interviewed and participants’ data were collected from published articles and organisational reports. The collected data was analysed through thematic coding.

One participant said “During activities (…) I experienced equality (…). We are all equal (…) Now I accept people from all backgrounds and cultures”. Sport has the power to help young people transcend barriers and differences by uniting them through friendship and team spirit. Another participant said, “We felt safe and easy to talk about sexual health and related issues (…) we learned about our bodies and its rights.” This indicates that such safe spaces have the potential to help in SRHR advocacy and to deal with the stigma and taboos associated with it.

Young people also felt empowered through improved confidence and self-esteem. Each individual in the diverse groups of young people were included and accepted without judgement. They followed game rules, demonstrated sportsmanship, accepted each other, played together, had fun and became friends. Social ties also strengthened communities and created a sense of belonging, helping to develop trust. Due to mutual trust and ice-breaking through fun-based activities, participants were able to share their experiences, particularly the female participants.

Soccer was used to educate young people about contraception using UNAID's innovative approach. That is, just like a goalkeeper is needed to prevent a goal, contraceptives are essential to prevent diseases or unwanted pregnancies. Such innovative methods were more effective to deliver the message among young participants of the programme (Mindthis Magazine, 2017).

Fun elements, such as happiness and social ties helped participants to improve their mental health, which is key to sexual and reproductive health and an empowered life.

The study explored sport’s innovative role in boosting SRHR advocacy. Overall, it was found that sport works as an innovative and powerful tool to help to boost and advance SRHR advocacy. It also empowers young people and helps to improve mental health. The study recommends that relevant organisations adopt sports as a tool in SRHR programmes and campaigns. It also encourages researchers to explore this topic further (for example, through comparative studies) to see different dimensions and perspectives.


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Umair is a social and sports activist working in Pakistan. He is a faculty member at the Physical Education and Sports Sciences department at GC University Lahore, Pakistan. He is also founder of Kafka Welfare Organisation Pakistan that has been working to build a healthy society for young people.

This article is about the use of sports as a social and development tool to improve young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights advocacy.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @ranaumairasif


The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Royal Commonwealth Society.


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