by Rose Hackman

The concept is simple: girls who are empowered through sport gain the confidence to complete or continue their education. Along the way, they will most likely change minds within their communities and eventually re-invest in them as a whole.

This is probably happening on an athletics track right near you. It is also happening in refugee camps in Kenya and in skate parks in Afghanistan.

The first time I became acutely aware of gender discrimination was when I was 12.  During a lunch break, on my school’s basketball court in Belgium, I was asking for the ball right next to the basket. I was clearly open, but the boys I was playing with kept going, oblivious to my waving arms.

Of course I, together with my ego, recovered. But for other girls in less privileged parts of the world, whether they play sports or not – whether that boy figuratively passes them the ball or not – could have an impact on the rest of their lives. It could decrease chances of an early marriage, help avoid HIV/AIDS infection and heighten entire communities’ prospects.

Why? Because studies show that there is a direct correlation between participating in sports and attaining higher levels of education and when it comes to fighting poverty in the developing world, it seems little is more logical than pushing girls’ education.

Take the case of Afghanistan, where 82% of young girls are illiterate, compared to 51% of their male counterparts. It’s a critical place for girls’ education: only 15% of girls attend school, despite huge leaps forward since the departure of the Taliban in 2001. It does not seem the likeliest place to engage girls in sports, yet many an organization is doing it – and successfully so.

In 2006, Awista Ayub, who later wrote Kabul Girls Soccer Club, went back to her country of origin to engage girls in soccer. What started as an exchange program for just eight girls, has now turned into an organized league with fifteen teams and hundreds of girls participating. For Ayub, giving girls access to fields once reserved for men is key in “redefining gender roles” and, more specifically, contributing to the debate surrounding the evolving role and “repositioning” of women in Afghan society.

Pushing the boundaries one step further is Skateistan, an initiative set up by two Australian skateboard lovers in Kabul. 120 Afghan girls regularly come and skate in the organization’s facilities, which include an indoor skate park especially built for girls. How does it empower them? With passion and a fair amount of guts when it comes to telling parents they’re off to do a couple of jumps.

Why are these stories even relevant to education?

Well, first off, as UNICEF put it while they were advocating for girls’ education during the Fifa 2003 Women’s World Cup, “often the same girls who are kept off the playing field are those kept out of the classroom” – and reversing one factor helps reverse the other.

It also tackles something that is not always an easy issue: mentalities. An Oxfam report on girls’ education in Afghanistan released this February found that lack of family support was listed as a key obstacle in the pursuit of education for around 32% of girls interviewed. 10% of girls mentioned lack of community support and around 11% listed harassment.

While the top reasons for interrupting school attendance were poverty and early or forced marriage, encouraging girls to score points on (and off) the court may prove to be more than a step in the right direction.

This blog post was written as an entry into the Blog4Girls competition organized as part of Plan UK’s Because I am a Girl campaign which _aims to ensure girls in the world’s poorest countries access a quality education._