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Sports Diplomacy – a Win for Women in the Indo-Pacific

06 Apr 2020
By Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA and Caitlin Ryan
Children living in the Fasi Moe Afi area of Nukuʻalofa, Tonga take part in a Just Play soccer program, an initiative funded by AusAID. Source: Connor Ashleigh for AusAID

Today is the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, a United Nations initiative to raise awareness of sport as a tool to accomplish the UN’s development objectives. Australia uses sports in its foreign aid both for development outcomes and diplomatic engagement in the region.

6 April was chosen to mark the date of the first modern Olympics and its vision of sport as a way to bring people together. Australia’s use of sport for development can be dismissed as “an excuse to indulge Australians’ love of sport,” however it aligns with the United Nations’ endorsement and confirmation of “sport as an important enabler of sustainable development” in the Sustainable Development Goals. How does Australia use sport for development outcomes in the Indo-Pacific? And what are the diplomatic benefits for Australia-Asia engagement?

Australia’s Sport Diplomacy

Australia has been a frontrunner in including sport in its development programs and diplomacy. In 2015 the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade launched a world-first Sports Diplomacy Strategy and in 2018 it released Sports Diplomacy 2030. Developed in consultation with agencies including the Office for Sport, Tourism Australia, Sport Australia, and Austrade, the strategy aims to enhance Australia’s influence and reputation and advance its national interests with four aims: empower Australian sport to represent Australia globally; build linkages with neighbours; maximise trade, tourism, and investment opportunities; and strengthen communities in the Indo-Pacific.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade administers funding through the Pacific Sports Partnerships and Asian Sports Partnerships programs. The criteria for receiving grant funding include demonstrating a commitment to health and development concerns, including physical inactivity, and addressing inequalities experienced by women, girls, and people living with disability.

How does Sport Contribute?

There is a growing body of program evaluations and research identifying the successeslimitations, and factors associated with successful sport for development programming. The evidence indicates that the international appeal and reach of sport can provide an engaging platform across different geographical, social, cultural, and political contexts. Some of the benefits of sport for development are clear, such as physical fitness.

On the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, we’d like to focus on sport as a tool to promote gender equality. Our Watch’s evidence-based education programs on the role that sport can play to overcome inequality show that when women are given more opportunities to participate in sport and society, violence against women is less likely. But sport alone can’t prevent violence against women. What it can do is be an important part of the wider picture towards changing societal attitudes.

A 2019 Office of Development Effectiveness report evaluating a decade of Australia’s development assistance to prevent violence against women noted that: “Sports can be a good way to involve youth and other target groups in violence prevention programs. They can provide non-threatening and engaging entry points on otherwise sensitive topics… Sports can also have positive secondary outcomes for women and girls, including physical and mental wellbeing, empowerment, increased confidence and increased access to public spaces.”

Volleyball and Violence against Women

A successful example of using sport to address inequality is the Pacific Volleyball Partnership program run by the Volleyball Association of Fiji for women aged 17-75, which has gained international recognition for its positive outcomes. Because of traditional roles in Fiji’s patriarchal society, many women were unable to access sport participation programs due to family commitments and the risks to their safety if they were to go against the wishes of their husbands. The program engaged male advocates and consulted with leaders and the wider community to find a suitable time for the women to participate and built consensus among men that women’s participation in the program was in the best interests of the community as a whole. The program was run by Fijians for Fijians, with operational support from Volleyball Australia, reflecting the shared values of Fiji and Australia to provide more sporting opportunities for women, and ultimately reduce rates of violence against women.

The Australian government has been giving aid to Fiji for programs addressing domestic violence since at least 1990, when a four year grant was awarded to the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre for a program which has been labelled “one of Australia’s most successful aid projects in the Pacific,” and aid funding from Australia continued to support the organisation in the following decades. Demonstrating the shared commitment to the reduction of violence against women in Fiji, in January this year the Fijian government announced it will develop a national action plan to prevent violence against women and girls, and noted that along with Australia, it will be the only country in the world to have a targeted, evidence-based plan to address the problem. Sport is an important part of this strategy. As the Assistant Minister for Employment, Productivity, Industrial Relations, Youth, and Sports, Honourable Alvick Maharaj stated, “Sport can be one of the most powerful platforms for social change.”

Sport and Values

Australia certainly isn’t perfect when it comes to the commitment to gender equality. But when Australia uses sport to promote shared values in the region, it can create connections and hold a mirror up to Australian society, holding itself accountable to the values Australia hopes to represent.

Respect for women’s sport in Australia has changed dramatically in the past decade, with government inquiries focussed on the benefits of increased female participation and the rapid rise in the number of women playing traditionally male-dominated sports. National sporting organisations including the AFL, Rugby League, and Cricket have demonstrated their commitment to elite women’s sport with the establishment of professional leagues and television broadcast packages. This commitment is not just for commercial reasons, but is the result of research demonstrating that society benefits when women are treated as equals and, as sport is a reflection of society, equality for women in sport promotes equality for women in society. These values have become “Australian values” that the Australian government promotes through its development programs and which can help build deep engagement.

Today’s International Day of Sport for Development and Peace provides an opportunity to reflect on the connections that sport can promote and its place in development and Australia-Asia engagement.

Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA is Director of Diplomacy at Asialink at The University of Melbourne. She tweets at @MConleytyler.

Caitlin Ryan is a Master of International Relations student currently interning with Asialink.