Egypt’s youth centers don’t cater for female athletes

Hager Hesham


Designed by Ahmed Bika, Infotimes

Aya Said, had to wait nearly 13 years until she had the opportunity to fulfil her childhood dream of doing Karate. The first obstacle was the unavailability of a women’s only gym where she could 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 she has become a young woman, and that the center was far, as she might have to return late at night from training. Aya managed to convince them that the center provided female trainers and had adequate privacy for female sportspersons.

Aya was born in the village of Sheikh Ali, which is under the jurisdiction of the Dishna Center in the Qena Governorate. From a young age Aya dreamt of learning Karate, but her city of Naqada lacked proper sports facilities that catered for her privacy needs. Aya’s case is not an exception among Egyptian girls.

Youth centers are sports facilities established by the Egyptian government since the 1940’s. They aim to provide citizens with a space where they can be active in their spare time for a small fee compared to the cost of joining 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 their use for any politically motivated activities.

Such youth centers represent 85% of all sports facilities in the country, and they are geared for young people use in different stages of their life. However, data collected and analyzed by the investigator shows negligence and failure in most centers to cater for girls and females above eighteen years of age as in the case of Aya.

Women in those youth centers are under represented. In 2009, only 5% of all members were female, this percentage translates into one in every twenty members. In 2018, this percentage dropped to 4% even.

The data for the period under analysis reflect a narrowing in the gap between male and female athletes, but that is due to a drop in male memberships. This is because 50% of youth centers need refurbishment, according to former Minister of Youth and Sports Khalid Abdel-Aziz. The current minister, Ashraf Sobhi says that the ministry is working on supporting youth centers and upgrading them.

Data show that female athletes are under represented at youth centers across Egypt. In 2018, no female membership was visible in 50% of youth facilities. This also cover urban governorates such as Alexandria where 8 female memberships are recorded for every 10,000 women and girls. Similar figures are recorded in the Delta region, such as Gharbia, and 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 female in the same year.

The poor infrastructure at these centers and the lack of privacy contribute to female reluctance to enrol, parents also are reluctant to allow their daughters to frequent these centers. For Hajar who graduated from the Faculty of Physical Education in 2018, becoming a trainer at Al-Khatara Youth Center was her first job opportunity. She herself was advised by her mother not to advertise her new job in the (conservative) village where she lives.

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

The increase in the number of female registering at sports centers and taking part in team activities is a result of the increase in the number of female trainers available. This is revealed when analysing data that highlights the connection between the availability of female coaches and the increase of female participation in sports in the period from 2009 to 2018.

Several studies by governmental and non-governmental agencies, including a Master’s thesis prepared by researcher Yasmine Al-Ghazali at the American University in Cairo expose this correlation. Al-Ghazali recommends that localities cooperate with educational institutions to create means to empower young trainers to work and meet women’s needs to encourage them to practice sports specially amongst Egyptian women from lower and middle classes.

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 at youth facilities is a priority for women, especially when it comes to changing rooms or bathrooms available for women only. Analyzing the relationship between the number of female athletes and the condition of the facility at youth centers over the years shows that the availability of changing rooms has a positive, albeit slight effect on overall joining ratio. 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 at 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 encourage 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 earned herself a 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 her family, her uncle personally vetted the privacy standards at the training hall where male members had no access. The parents then agreed for their daughter to take up the rare opportunity to start a career at the youth center.

The Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics published gender data on participation in sports activities between 2009-2018, and this has shown that beginning from 2012, most Egyptian governorates witnessed a doubling in the number of female coaches and technical assistants.

Despite this increase, 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. For veteran professional female coaches, Nada Kamil and Fayza Haidar, the situation was far worse in the 1990s.

At that time, the two girls (Nada and Fayza) 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 soccer, and they were rejected because there were no female teams at 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, while facing a lot of bullying and rejection. Today, Fayza is a soccer coach certified by the English Premier League and coaches 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, "A Thousand Girls, A Thousand Dreams,” supported by the Ministry, and the British Council aims to teach football to women, convinced Fayza that having female coaches encourages girls and women to take part in sports activities.

Fayza says, “We go to areas that lack female athletes, and help provide a female trainer who then start training girls with the help of a male coach. When parents see a woman with their daughters, they are reassured.” Fayza explains that her case, having been brought up modestly among eight brothers, and have made it despite the challenges encourage otherwise apprehensive parents.

“Parents see role models like me or perhaps better ones. They realize that we as female have succeeded and have at the same time upheld our customs and traditions, so they decide that 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 open the door for more women in the game, however, data show that there is still a long way to go.

In present day Egypt things are not better, Data collected from a random sample of 54 youth centers across 14 provinces demonstrate a failure to provide opportunities for potential female sports women to participate in activities.

The investigator called these centers to check the possibility for adult women to participate in one of their sports activities. Half of these centers replied that they did not provide sports activities for women over 18 years.

Some were even surprised at our 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 one type of sport or another.

Muhammad Bayoumi, an expert on sports regulations, explains that youth centers have complete freedom to organize their sporting activities tailor it to meet the gender and numbers of their members. He says, “It is possible to set aside a center for girls and women only, and the center could participates in sports activities for women only; they are free to do this.”

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 admits that youth centers fail to focus on women in their sporting activities; however, she blames it on (conservative) customs and traditions dominant in such regions. Sonya says, “Customs in some regions prevent girls from going out after the age of 14.” She adds, “If these centers allocate activities for women, they will 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 (an area that is less conservative).

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 decided 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 Qena Governorate, and the experiences of Fayza and Nada in Cairo Governorate reveal the importance of privacy for Egyptian women. This issue defines their interest in sports or their reluctance to practice it. Customs and traditions are not the only handicap, male objections and bullying that women experience during training play a big part too.

“As we hang out after a match, the men loitering there would say, ‘Your place is in the kitchen,’ meaning we should not 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 men, the constant bullying and lack of support for women’s football in general 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 women only space. However, a girl who experienced training in such a hostile environment was able to secure special hours dedicated to training a female only team of young girls in the center’s soccer field. She says she managed to win over parents with some simple ideas, and she is seeing a positive turnout.

In a telephone interview, Nada explained how she arranged for the protection wardens on the field to provide extra space for parents who bring their daughters and sons to work out near the field. They would walk or run instead of sitting and waiting for their offspring to complete their training. “Most of the female trainees are familiar with us, hence they feel reassured.” Governorates such as Asyut and Beni Suef allocate at least one football pitch per youth center. In Luxor and Suez each is sport facility has 2 fields, in Cairo governorates centers are allowed five pitches each. In Kafr El-Shaikh, Giza and Gharbia, sports facilities pool their training grounds.

Facilities and infrastructure at those youth centers are not uniform across provinces and regions. Some lack swimming pools and changing rooms. This obviously affects memberships in general, specially women’s membership.

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 Nada’s opinion, poor facilities and lack of female-only sections, put off female athletes in general, specially when other youth clubs were available and women could join. In the case of governorates such as Qena where Hajar lives, the turnout at the center remained relatively good even if the infrastructure is not optimal.

Hajar even trained the girls at Al-Khatara Youth Center on a tiled floor on the roof of one of the center’s buildings. This is not perfect compared to the gym floor where she trained at the Brahmins Sports Club, she says. Hajar explains about her previous experience, “The coach used to remove some stones from under our feet so that we do not trip over them as we played barefoot and the dirt was still better for our movement (than tiled floor).”

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 well equipped centers were crucial factors in attracting women, however, she says that there were not enough centers across the country to meet the population needs. Between 2009 and 2018, only 95 new youth centers were opened across Egypt.

Provisions for youth centers could also change due to demographic changes across the country. Between 2009 and 2018, youth centers in Cairo declined by 14%, despite a population increase by 17%. In Qena province where Hajar and Aya live; 3 youth centers were shut down while the population increased by around 90000. This comparison must not link youth centers numbers (rigidly) to population growth, rather, it is an indication of how often such new centers come online to service the communities as the authorities try to keep pace or fail in its endeavour to meeting citizens right to access sports facilities as Article (34) of the Law on managing Youth Organizations, states that the Egyptian government is responsible for providing the spaces necessary to establish youth clubs according to the state’s plan and its needs, whether in local regions or elsewhere.

It is also clear that the increase in public expenditures on sports activities is not significant. State expenditures in this field have increased by about a third during the last five fiscal years from July 2015 to June 2020 for youth, cultural, and religious affairs sectors and youth facilities fall under this budget.

Though, this is considered a big increase, in real terms this did not reflect improvement of services offered by youth facilities. Economic hardship such as the floating of the Egyptian pound and its loss of value rendered budgetary increases redundant, failing to provide sufficient funds for salaries, grants and new projects. But according to Sonya Dunia, Executive Director of the Supreme Committee for Women’s Sports, the Ministry is working on solving these problem by involving the private sector to help refurbish youth centers and modernizing them where possible.