10 Lessons I Learned in Pakistan

In April, Girls in the Game Programming Director Beth Tumiel participated in a global exchange organized by Women Win and funded by the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan in an effort to share sports-based youth development programs with nonprofits and organizations empowering girls through sport in Pakistan. Girls in the Game was one of multiple organizations who made site visits to exchange information and best practices with a similar program in Pakistan called Right to Play, which works in partnership with the international organization Women Win.

We asked her to share her top 10 lessons from this powerful experience.

Learning to Play & Persevere in Pakistan

In April, I embarked on an amazing journey. The journey of seeing sport as a human right. During my travels, I found that there is something that you learn from sport that you don’t learn anywhere else. It really hit home that sport can move us closer to social justice.

As I thought about everything I experienced and remembered everyone I met, I decided that I wanted to share a few of the most important lessons that I learned. Lessons that I’m taking back to Girls in the Game.

1. Women Are Leading the Movement

We met countless women who are driving change in their communities. They are ensuring access to sports by being mentors and role models, and fueling the fire in younger women so that it becomes a sustainable movement. The passion that seems exceptional in the US was commonplace in Pakistan, connecting them to this work regardless of how difficult, unappreciated or dissuaded they were.

Beth with Jannat al Firdous who runs the Al Firdous Community Model School in Pakistan

One example that sticks out in my mind is Senna, our Pakistani Host, the Captain of the National Basketball Team, a player on the National Football Team, staff of Right to Play Pakistan. Every day during the trip, she made sure that young Pakistani women were there, taking leadership roles and talking about their passion for sport.

2. Men are Part of the Movement

Being aware of Pakistan’s challenges with gender equality, I expected that most of the opposition for women in sport would come from men. I quickly learned that this is not the case! We heard the story of a brother, inspired by seeing girls play football in Karachi, starting a girls’ football club in his home village. We heard the story of a father, who was his daughters’ first and strongest supporter as she embarked on a road to the National Football League.

Hearing stories about the men who are involved in creating more access to sport for girls made me challenge my own stereotypes. I questioned my initial instincts that this is solely a woman’s issue. Very clearly, these men saw the importance and the impact of girls’ and women’s involvement in sport. I began to wonder how we can better engage our male supporters at Girls in the Game.

3. Women Will Fight

I also gained a new appreciation about the lengths that someone will go to play sports. We met a woman who was denied access to a public pool as a young girl and still managed to become an Olympic swimmer, by practicing moves out of the water. We spoke with a young woman who talked about going on a hunger strike when she was told that she couldn’t play basketball. Girls will pave their own paths to access when it isn’t provided. It made me think about how we nurture perseverance in the girls who are a part of our program to make sure that they know to fight for what they deserve.

Beth with swimmer Kiran Khan, gold medal Olympian of Pakistan

4. The Challenge of Being One Team

One of the challenges women shared was the lack of competition. Even the places where there was a girls’ sports team, they were often one of very few, or the only one in the area. With no other teams to play against, they felt stilted in their growth. I’ve never thought of competition in this way: competing to improve your game. This reality made me realize that the strength of one team is only as good as the entire movement of girls’ sport.

We often talk about how the girls in one of our programs are part of the bigger picture of Girls in the Game. But it is up to us to create that bigger picture. This requires serving more girls, bringing them together and working in collaboration with other sports-based youth development organizations.

5. Public Perception is Misleading

When I first found out about the opportunity to go to Pakistan, many people voiced concern about the country. It didn’t take much research to realize that the country had a similar perception issue to Chicago even though most of the country is safe for travel.

On my trip, I discovered that in addition to feeling safe, Pakistan is filled with kind, progressive people who value the same things that we do at Girls in the Game. This experience made me committed to challenging perceptions, whether those perceptions are of a different country, a community in Chicago, a school we provide programming at or even an individual. And maybe this is yet another way we can measure growth in our girls; by how willing they are to challenge perceptions.

6. Develop Local Leadership, Locally

Many of the organizations we visited were steeped in local leadership. They were either started by people in the community, and/or staffed by those in the community. Watching younger girls look to their coaches who lived their experiences was inspiring. You could tell that in their coaches, the younger girls saw someone that they could be someday. At Girls in the Game, we replicate this with our Middle School and Teen Programs, encouraging teens to take on leadership positions and inspire younger girls in their communities. However, it made me consider other ways that we can be more community based and develop local leadership.

Members practicing at the first kickboxing club for girls in Karachi, Pakistan

7. The Importance of Service

The central mission of service drove this local leadership. The strongest example of this was when we went to a school in a village outside of Islamabad that was started by a Pakistani woman who lived in London for over 30 years. She was inspired to build the school when a small child stopped her for food during a visit to her hometown, and she realized that there were families in her home country who were struggling to get basic needs met. She moved to the area and started a school with an employment program, raised money for a tarmac field and instituted a food program, all without being paid. When I asked her if it was hard to live there, she told me that doing this work has been the biggest gift of her lifetime.

I thought hard about how the idea of service translates to Girls in the Game. How does this influence how we talk about our work in our training, in our coach recruitment, in our conversations with program and funding partners? And how does this change our ability to make an impact?

8. Inequality Looks Different

When we think of inequality, we sometimes forget its diverse nature. Our minds tend to go to the big inequalities like income, racial or gender inequality. When we visited Aga Kahn University in Karachi, we were forced to think about how inequality can be several things at once through our meeting with two university students who were on the university basketball team and four players on the national cricket team.

A selfie with the National Cricket Team of Pakistan

The university students had resources to travel and attend school, while the cricket players came from communities with fewer resources. All the young women talked about the barriers to playing sports, but their barriers were different based on the community they grew up in and their future plans. While the young women from the university were encouraged to play sports, it was an unspoken agreement that it would not influence their grades, that they wouldn’t go on to play nationally and that they would shift their priorities when they got married. Whereas the young women from the cricket team were discouraged from playing at a young age and often felt looked down upon, even sometimes being hassled for their appearance and dress. They received far less for being part of the team than the men on the men’s national cricket team.

Because the barriers they faced were different, they required a different strategy to become equal. It made me wonder how we at Girls in the Game are being responsive to the diversity in inequality, and want to make sure that we are fighting inequality on multiple levels.

9. Playing to Level the Playing Field

Each day, we played. With the national soccer team, the Sindh football team, Karachi United and the girls boxing club. This made a difference. It allowed us to break the ice so that we could ask the questions we were curious about, and the girls could ask the questions that they were curious about. Something about playing together creates a safe environment.

We even saw this when we went to the Embassy and played football with girls from the Sindh football team. At first, the girls stuck together, but eventually, we all were mixing together and laughing together, even the Director of Communications at the Embassy!

I often jump in whenever I visit our programs, but now, I’ll try not to let a visit go by without playing.

10. Teaching Levels the Power Dynamics

And finally, at many of the sites we visited, we became learners. We learned boxing skills from girls in the boxing club. We were taught Tae Kwon Do moves by the girls in the orphanage. We were coached in football by the Sindh football team and by Karachi United. This not only leveled the playing field, but it changed the power dynamic. We were having an impact by merely stepping into the role of the learner, which automatically transformed the girls we were working with into our teachers. Very powerful. At Girls in the Game, we should always allow ourselves to be taught!

As you can see, though being in Pakistan itself was amazing, the gems of wisdom I received from the places we visited and people we met were invaluable, to me personally, to Girls in the Game and to Sports Based Youth Programming in general.