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Youth Centers Drop Women Athletes from their List of Concerns

Hager Hesham

14/03/2021

Designed by Ahmed Bika, Infotimes

Aya Said had to wait around 13 years until she had the opportunity to fulfill her childhood dream of doing Karate. The first obstacle was the availability of a women’s only gym that would allow her to practice. In 2019, after she turned 25, this opportunity materialized in Al-Khatara Youth Center, which is about 3 km away from her residence.

Initially, her family opposed the idea because the center was far from her place of residence and because of the possibility of her being late at night. This is in addition to her “old age,” but she was able to convince them because satisfactory conditions were met, including the presence of a female trainer and ensuring privacy for the trainees.

Aya was born in the village of Sheikh Ali, which is under the jurisdiction of the Dishna Center in the Qena Governorate. She lived her teenage years in the city of Naqada, the center’s metro area. Since she started dreaming of doing Karate, she had not been able to find a place that provided her with the needed privacy. This is despite the availability of centers close to the city of Naqada. Some of these were founded more than 20 years ago. Aya’s case is not an exception among Egyptian girls.

Youth centers are sports facilities established by the Egyptian state since the forties of the last century. They aim to provide citizens with the opportunity to use their spare time in various activities for a small fee compared to the charges paid to private sports clubs. Since 2017, these centers have been subject to the Law of Youth Organizations No. (218) of 2017, which regulated their work and made them subject to administrative bodies affiliated with the Ministry of Youth and Sports. The law also officially prohibits all political party activities in them.

These youth centers represent 85% of all sports facilities in the country. By their legal definition, they target youth in different stages of life. Nevertheless, the data collected and analyzed by the investigator proves the negligence of many of these centers to provide appropriate conditions for women to practice sports activities, especially for those over the age of eighteen years, as is the case of Aya.

For every woman who becomes a member in one of the youth centers in Egypt, three men gain membership in the same center. This situation has practically not changed in the ten years from 2009 to 2018, according to data from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. In 2009, only 5% of all members were registered as female athletes: This means a member who is registered in a sports activity provided by the center. This percentage translates into one in every twenty members. In 2018, the percentage dropped to 4%.

It is noteworthy that the available data for the period under analysis reflect a decrease in the gap between male and female athletes, but the reason is the decrease in male memberships, not the increase in female memberships. This is because 50% of youth centers need development, according to former Minister of Youth and Sports Khalid Abdel-Aziz. The current minister, Ashraf Sobhi says that the ministry is working on raising the structural efficiency of youth centers and on supporting them.

Data show that the scarcity of female athletes is persistent across the board in Egyptian governorates. In 2018, no female athletes could be seen belonging to half the number of youth centers. This includes centers in urban governorates such as Alexandria in which women participate at a rate of only 8 out of every 10,000 women and girls. This figure is close to those in governorates in the Delta region, such as Gharbia as well as in Upper Egypt, such as Beni Suef.

In the Qena Governorate where Aya lives, the rate drops to two athletes out of every 10,000 people in the same year.

The weak infrastructure of these centers and the lack of privacy for women contribute to their reluctance to join, as well as the reluctance of parents to allow their daughters to frequent these centers. For Hajar who graduated from the Faculty of Physical Education in 2018, training at Al-Khatara Youth Center was her first job opportunity. She herself was advised by her mother not to inform the village people about the nature of her work.

However, Hajar’s presence as a trainer at the center was crucial to women’s and girls’ interest in joining the training despite the customs that govern their society, as confirmed by data from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics on sports activities.

The increase in the number of female athletes registering in the activities of sports centers and their teams is connected to the increase in the number of female trainers. This is revealed by the analysis of the data on the statistical relationship between the numbers of female athletes and female coaches in the period between 2009 to 2018. It is evident in several studies by governmental and non-governmental agencies, including the Master’s thesis prepared by researcher Yasmine Al-Ghazali at the American University in Cairo. Al-Ghazali recommends that localities cooperate with educational institutions to create ways to empower young trainers to work and meet women’s needs in practicing sports. This would be a step towards integrating sports into the lives of Egyptian women, especially in the middle and lower classes of society.

Sonya Dunia, Executive Director of the Supreme Committee for Women’s Sports at the Ministry of Youth and Sports, says that the boards of directors of youth centers appoint female trainers based on the turnout they already have, so that their budgets do not have to bear additional burdens.

Data indicates that the privacy component of the infrastructure is a priority for women, especially when it comes to changing rooms or bathrooms, for example. Analyzing the relationship between the number of female athletes and the state of the infrastructure at youth centers over the years shows that the availability of changing rooms has a positive, albeit slight effect on joining youth centers. This shows by calculating the statistical relationship between the numbers of women athletes and the number of changing rooms in the period between 2009 to 2018. The weak correlation in this relationship can be explained by the sample that the investigator collected in addition to the interviews that were conducted.

Many youth centers use staff offices or bathrooms as alternatives for changing rooms. Hajar says that she and her team would use a room assigned to the center’s activities to change their clothes. On the other hand, Nada Kamil, who is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the South Cairo Governorate Youth Center, would ask the trainees to wear their sports clothes in advance.

In 2014, the Population Council conducted a field study in cooperation with the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. The study recommends allocating hours for girls in these facilities in order to attract them to practice physical activity, and this applies to both members and trainers.

Hajar, for example, succeeded in persuading her family to allow her to participate in Karate training in the Brahmins Club and then won the black belt. If she had not succeeded in doing this, she would have been destined to stay at home.

Hajar got her chance to start her career as a trainer on conditions that satisfy the parents: her uncle himself went to check the privacy of the training hall and its isolation from the opposite sex. The parents then agreed for their daughter to take up the rare opportunity and start her career at the youth center.

The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics published data on sports activities for the last ten years (2009-2018). Data about coaches aggregated by gender show that beginning in 2012, most Egyptian governorates witnessed a doubling in the number of female coaches and technical assistants.

Despite this doubling, the number of female trainers is still too low to cover all or most youth centers in Egyptian governorates. Only seven governorates have one or more female trainers for each center, and these are governorates with fewer than 200 youth centers. The scarcity of female trainers means there are fewer women members compared to men. This is a reality that both Aya and Hajar deal with today in their experiences. As for professional female coaches, such as Nada Kamil and Fayza Haidar, they experienced more difficulties during the 1990s.

At that time, the two girls were no more than seven years old. They tried to persuade the administrations of a number of clubs and youth centers in the Helwan region in Cairo to allow them to play and train in soccer, and they were rejected because there were no female teams in these facilities.

In a telephone interview, Nada Kamil says that she played in the East Helwan Youth Center without an official membership. This is the same center that witnessed the beginning of Fayza's football playing career. The two women played the game and moved to several clubs and faced a lot of bullying and rejection. Today, however, Fayza is a soccer coach certified by the English Premier League in several clubs and youth centers while Nada is a member of the board of directors at the East Helwan Youth Center.

Fayza Haidar was part of several projects implemented in cooperation with the Ministry of Youth and Sports to increase the number of female football players. One of these projects is "A Thousand Girls: A Thousand Dreams,” which is supported by the Ministry and the British Council and aims to teach football to women. This is the experience which confirmed to Fayza that the presence of a female coach is a key factor in attracting women and girls to sports activities.

Fayza says, “We go to areas that suffer from a lack of female athletes and qualify a trainer to be able to train girls with the help of a male coach. When parents see a woman with their daughters, they are reassured.” Fayza explains that parents who refuse the principle of their daughters doing sports are affected by the presence of models like her. She says when she appears in the media, she deliberately talks about the financial difficulties she faced, her upbringing among eight brothers and the society’s view of her.

“Parents see role models like me or perhaps better ones. They realize that we preserve the customs and traditions of society, enjoy everyone’s respect and achieve successes, and they want their daughter to be like me,” she adds. Fayza is optimistic about the future of women’s soccer in Egypt thanks to the efforts made by her and others to include more women in the game. On a general level, however, data show that there is still a long way to go.

The failure to provide youth centers with opportunities for girls and women to train in various sporting activities is not just limited to the past. Data were collected from a sample of 54 randomly selected youth centers across 14 Egyptian governorates to examine the availability of sports activities to women in youth centers. The results show that the failure to provide such opportunities is not limited to the customs and traditions of society.

The investigator called these centers to ask about the possibility of participating in one of the sports activities for adult women who are over 18 years of age. At least half of these centers told her that they did not provide sports activities for women over 18 years old.

Some people at these centers were surprised at the request and categorically denied such availability because the question is considered “strange” for their villages or regions. Others said that they were considering forming women’s sports teams in the future, or that they would form women’s teams if a group of women should take the initiative to announce their desire to practice some kind of sport.

Muhammad Bayoumi, an expert on sports regulations, explains that youth centers have complete freedom to direct their sporting activities according to the types and numbers of their members. He says, “It is possible to allocate a center for women only or for girls, and it participates in sports activities for women only; they are free to do this.” In spite of this freedom and the availability of at least one sporting activity in these centers, these activities are not directed towards women, even if by half at least.

Sonya Dunia is the head of the Central Administration for Sports Development at the Ministry of Youth and Sports as well as the Executive Director of the Supreme Committee for Women’s Sports. She does not deny that youth centers fail to focus on women in their sporting activities; however, she attributes these decisions to the customs and traditions of the regions in which these centers are located. Sonya says, “Some customs in some regions prevent girls from going out at the age of 14.” She also adds, “If these centers should allocate activities for women, they would not come.” However, the centers that informed the investigator that no activities were available for women included youth centers in Egyptian cities, and one of them was in the Cairo Governorate.

In 2019, Hajar and Aya’s experience had spanned a whole year already. They decided to leave Al-Khatara Youth Center to search for places closer to their residences. Hajar took the helm to train a team of young girls and women in the village of Al-Toud, which is closer to her village than Al-Khatara is, while Aya began training with another female coach at Naqada Sports Club.

The experiences of Hajar and Aya in the Qena Governorate, and the experiences of Fayza and Nada in the Cairo Governorate unveil the importance of privacy for Egyptian women. This determines their interest in sports or their reluctance to practice it. The reason is not only due to customs and traditions, but also due to bad experiences that women face during training and while playing in open or shared spaces. These include bullying and objections from men to their presence.

“For example, as we hang out after the match, the males say, ‘Your place is in the kitchen,’ meaning our place is not to play soccer. Why? We are just like you: We have female doctors, ministers and engineers. We are all women, so what is the problem?” Nada describes these situations as “silly,” though she notes that they contributed to putting an end to her football career. Her shyness about continuing to play in front of males, the constant subjection to bullying and the lack of support for women’s football in general all prompted her to stop playing and switch to training when she turned 19.

Her current workplace at the East Helwan Youth Center does not provide special spaces for women. However, the girl who experienced the disadvantages of training in an unprepared environment was able to secure special hours dedicated to training a female team of young girls in the center’s soccer field. She says she targets parents with some simple ideas and that she is seeing a positive turnout.

In a telephone interview, Nada shares how she arranges for the protection of the field/ gym to provide space for parents who bring their daughters and sons to sports training: they walk or run instead of sitting and waiting. She explains, “Most of the female trainees and members of the center know us, so they feel reassured.” Governorates such as Asyut and Beni Suef have at least one football field for each youth center. Other youth centers in Luxor and Suez in governorates such as Cairo have five or two fields per center. In other governorates such as Kafr El-Shaikh, Giza and Gharbia, fields do not correspond to the number of centers.

Other types of infrastructure in governorates also suffer. Examples include the unavailability of changing rooms and swimming pools. The rate of availability of changing rooms is one per center or more, in just three governorates. Swimming pools do not cover all the republic governorates. This low coverage affects the center members in general, but it affects women members in particular.

As an example, if all the players in youth centers should need to train daily and change clothes, and assuming that changing rooms are available equally to everyone during the day, out of every 100 players, the men’s share of the hours of using the changing room will be seven times more than that available for women in one dressing room.

In the case of Nada, the lack of infrastructure dedicated to women forms an obstacle to attracting them, especially with the availability of the alternative of health clubs in the Helwan region. In the case of governorates such as Qena where Hajar lives, the turnout for the center remained relatively good even if the infrastructure is not optimal.

In this way, Hajar trained the girls at Al-Khatara Youth Center on a tiled floor on the roof of one of the center’s buildings. This is naturally imperfect compared to the gym floor where she trained at the Brahmins Sports Club. “This was a school playground with a dirt floor.” Hajar explains, “The coach would pick up bricks from under our feet so that we do not trip over them because we used to play barefoot as dirt still is better for movement.”

Nada believes that the availability of material resources is a crucial factor in attracting women to youth centers, but the number of centers themselves may not meet the needs of the population. During a full decade from 2009 to 2018, the number of youth centers increased only by 95 centers across all of Egypt.

The percentages of change in the number of youth centers vary compared to the change in the population numbers in governorates. In the ten years between 2009 and 2018, the number of youth centers went down by 14% in Cairo where Nada and Fayza live whereas the population increased by 17%. The situation is the same in the Qena Governorate where Hajar and Aya live; Qena lost three youth centers during the same period while its population increased by around 90,000.

This comparison does not mean that the change in the number of centers should be equalized to the change in population numbers. Rather, it is an indication of the frequency of building centers in the different governorates. It also shows the extent to which the authorities try to keep pace with the needs of citizens to practice sports in these areas, based on the change in population numbers against the rate of increase in population numbers. This becomes significant, especially since Article (34) of the Law on Organizing Youth Organizations states that the Egyptian state is responsible for providing the spaces necessary to establish youth organizations according to the state’s plan and its needs, whether in local regions or elsewhere.

On the other hand, the rate of increase in state expenditures on sports activities is not significant. State expenditures have increased by about a third during the last five fiscal years from July 2015 to June 2020. These included the youth, culture, and religious affairs sector, which cover sports activities. In theory, this is a big increase, but some factors make the increase in amount less impactful on the quality of what these centers offer. These factors include inflation but also the floating of the Egyptian pound in 2016, which resulted in the Egyptian currency losing about 57% of its value against the dollar.

Expenses include employees’ salaries, grants, support to those who deserve it, investments, and projects. These expenditures are needed by youth centers such as those that Nada Kamil helps in running as they are also needed for projects like Fayza Haydar’s. This is in addition to developing the infrastructure of the centers. According to Sonya Dunia, Executive Director of the Supreme Committee for Women’s Sports, the Ministry is working on solving this problem by involving the private sector in developing youth centers and by making them available for investment.