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Athletes are champions on the field, and of larger issues on the world stage.

All over the world, professional women athletes are struggling for recognition and for basic needs like equipment, support from national federations and, most importantly, pay equity. In football (in the US, soccer), for example, women are paid a fraction of what their male counterparts earn. For comparison, the United States women’s national team was awarded $2 million for winning the Women’s World Cup in 2015; the year before, the men’s team received $8 million for just making the round of 16. But the imbalance between the genders extends far beyond the issue of equal pay.

Hajra Khan is captain of Pakistan’s national women’s soccer team. This year, her team was forced to withdraw from SAFF—the major regional tournament—because the Pakistan Football Federation claimed they didn’t have enough money for a women’s training camp or to send the players to India for the competition. Khan is the first woman from Pakistan to play internationally. “We waited two years to play in this championship, but now all we can do is sit at home and watch the matches from our lounges. It is really disappointing. The PFF is ruining our careers,” Khan told The Express Tribune in Pakistan.

In April, the Irish women’s team pushed back and refused to train. Many team members had been obliged to take other jobs to support themselves and their families, but the final straw came when they were asked to change in airport washrooms and immediately hand back uniforms to the Football Association of Ireland after the competition. In Argentina, the women’s soccer team also declared a strike earlier this year, demanding basics like timely wages, proper grass fields and adequate transportation. The team had traveled third-class on a bus for hours before a match in Uruguay, and the federation had made no hotel arrangements. In 2012, the Japanese women’s soccer team—also Women’s World Cup champions—flew in economy while the men’s team traveled in first class.

The lack of equality and respect is not always reported in mainstream media and can escape the public’s notice. Meanwhile, limited media coverage of the teams becomes a factor in how much leagues and federations will promote and protect their women athletes. Inadequate support not only impedes the development of female athletes, but can also be used as a political tool that prevents them from competing as they should. This is doubly unfair to the players whose only motive is to play the sport they love.

After they won the Women’s World Cup in 2015, the United States women’s national team made headlines with the #EqualPlay-EqualPay campaign when they challenged the US Soccer Federation and the collective bargaining agreement for better pay. Some of the players at the forefront of the campaign—Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo, Becky Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd—are the most recognizable in the world. Personal posts on social media explained their case and loyal fans supported them. The team fired and replaced the head of their players’ union in order to intensify advocacy for their goals. More than a year later, the two parties reached a deal. By putting a spotlight on equity issues, the US women’s team’s efforts help thousands of players globally.

Around the world, women’s teams are challenging gender discrimination. In December 2016,
Nigeria’s national forward, Asisat Oshoala, led the Super Falcons in a team sit-in when the African champions were not paid any of the money they were promised for winning. They were also owed money from the Nigeria Football Federation for qualifying for the tournament they won. “We are tired of the lies and false promises from the NFF,” a player (requesting anonymity) told the BBC. The message to women and girls is to not settle and to push back against the male-dominated establishment. Grassroots organizations like Discover Football, Women in Football, Equal Playing Field and FareNet are engaged in the ongoing battle to create spaces for women and girls to develop and to be educated on their rights.

Many federations around the world claim to support women in soccer, girl’s development, and elevation of the sport and yet can’t seem to pay their players. It’s a vicious cycle where women are expected to train mercilessly—and win—in order to get solid and consistent financial backing. But they can’t win unless the basic training requirements are met. On local, regional and national teams, women and girls need proper support and respect as they train, to grow as players and individuals. It is a heavy burden to ask aspiring players—or world champions—to fight both off the field and on it. Solidarity from male allies is crucial as is increased women’s representation as coaches, officials and executives at all levels of the game.

Every day more girls take up the game. And when we see more women in soccer boardrooms and see players being cheered by not only their families but by their federations, we will make sustainable change.

  • Words:
    Shireen Ahmed
  • Photography:
    Robin Broadbent
  • Words:
    Shireen Ahmed
  • Photography:
    Robin Broadbent
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