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Violence against women in sport: time to act

A PACE webinar on combating violence against women in sport has heard powerful testimony from a French athlete who suffered sexual abuse in her sport, as well as a series of initiatives from the UN, FIFA and other organisations on how to prevent it.

Sarah Abitbol, a French figure skater, explained that her aim in telling her story was to try to protect others in the future. Speaking about the abuse she had faced was still difficult – but she felt it was important to show others that this was the way forward. She wanted to explain to her nine-year-old daughter how to protect herself in the future. “We need to speak to young people, in an appropriate language, about these things. If I had had someone, perhaps a social worker or another athlete who had experienced this – who had told me clearly what a coach has the right to do, and not do – things might have been different for me.”

Dagmar Schumacher, Director of the Brussels Office of UN Women, presented her organisation’s “Sport for Generation Equality” initiative which seeks to eliminate violence in sport by empowering young female athletes, giving them a voice, challenging negative stereotypes, and creating a culture of true equality. “Sport has an enormous capacity to drive girls’ empowerment – it is a powerful tool for conveying positive messages, and one win leads to another.”

Pierre-Emmanuel Luneau-Daurignac, an investigative journalist who made a TV documentary about this issue for the French-German channel ARTE, said he had been inspired to do the film by a French tennis-player, Isabelle Demongeot, who wrote a book about her experience of abuse. He found that sports federations were “not at ease” with this issue, and found it hard to admit there was a problem. “It was hard to gather information, they pushed back when I did my documentary – and they still are.” The key was to change sporting culture, by building new rules into Federations.

Nadezda Knorre, Vice-President of WomenSport International, said her organisation had set up a “sexual harassment” task-force several years ago, which in the early 2000s had made recommendations to minimise it. Members of the task-force also gave advice to national and international sports federations, working for example with the IOC. “The focus has shifted since then to target psychological as well as physical abuse and neglect,” she pointed out.

Beatrice Barbusse, a lecturer and Secretary General of the French Handball Federation, analysed the topic from a sociological perspective, pointing out that sport had been, socio-historically, a “male preserve”, founded on competitiveness, domination, and physical force. “Sport is a machine for comparing people, comparing their bodies. And it is about exalting pain: if you’re not suffering, you’re not trying hard enough.” In this atmosphere, sexism had become institutionalised, with few women coaches, Presidents or leaders in sport. “There is an urgent need to feminise sport, in order to create a more welcoming, less violent climate,” she pointed out, as well as to provide models for non-intrusive, non-violent sports training, including for women. All involved in working with young people should be asked to sign declarations of honour, while there should be comprehensive support for victims – psychological, legal, and social.

Joyce Cook CBE, FIFA’s Chief Social Responsibility and Education Officer, said her organisation had been “late to the table” on this issue, along with many others, but that it now took the issue very seriously, with total commitment from FIFA’s President. FIFA had established a team of full-time experts to develop safeguarding and preventive measures, had channeled this into a “toolkit” for FIFA’s 211 member associations, and was rolling out regional “train the trainer” workshops on safeguarding. With the Open University, it was also working on a sports diploma for safeguarding officers, the first course of its kind. When individual cases came up, FIFA could deploy trained psychologists and human rights lawyers to conduct investigations, but she felt there was a need for a new, independent global entity to conduct independent investigations.

The webinar saw introductory remarks from Zita Gurmai (Hungary, SOC), General Rapporteur on Violence against Women and Coordinator of the Parliamentary Network Women Free from Violence, and was moderated by Killion Munyama (Poland, EPP/CD), the Assembly's rapporteur on “The fight for a level playing field – ending discrimination against women in the world of sport”.