On a small cricket field in a dusty village in India’s east, groups of boys run between wickets, shouting at each other in the searing heat. When practice is over they put down their bats and fall silent as they listen to a very different form of instruction.
“I saw a guy harassing a girl on the street yesterday,” one player says solemnly. “Have you seen this too? What did you do to stop it?”
The boys share their experiences. When Manish Sharma, 20, told his teammates about the countless times he had witnessed domestic violence, he realised he was not alone. He says discussing the issue with his fellow players emboldened him to tell a relative to stop abusing his wife. “They gave me strength to intervene,” he says.
From cricket in India to rugby in Fiji and Georgia, sport is being used as an entry point to teaching young men about gender equality and developing healthy notions of masculinity
Efforts to reduce violence usually focus on strengthening laws or teaching women self-defence. But experts say educating teenagers in the context of a pastime they love, at a time when their attitudes about gender are forming, can have a lasting impact.
After practice, coaches and players discuss how values universal to all sports, such as integrity, fairness and respect, can be applied to personal relationships.
In Fiji, where rugby is the most popular sport, coaches are mentoring children in a series of pilot projects supported by UN Women and Oceania Rugby. At 10 schools, male and female coaches mentor small groups of boys and girls aged 10 to 14 about sports values and gender equality.
One goal is to encourage players to think critically rather than lecturing them about what is right or wrong. During one session, coaches ask players to consider whether power is positive or negative and what they can do in situations when people use their power over them in ways that feel uncomfortable.
“Going in and saying ‘violence is bad’ doesn’t work,” says Farrah Kelly, a technical specialist at UN Women in Fiji. “The kids have to reflect and understand their own attitudes and beliefs and how to take action in their own lives rather than have all this negative messaging.”
Coaches and teachers who participated in the first pilot, which ran from October to December last year, say the mentoring has resulted in less absenteeism, bullying and discipline problems among players.
By most estimates, India’s eastern state of Bihar has the country’s highest rates of violence against women. Approximately 56% of married womenhave reported some form of violence or abuse.
For the cricket project in Bihar, which was started in 2013 by Population Council and which operates through government-run youth clubs, cricketers and coaches were trained to mentor teenage boys about sports values and social issues such as avoiding substance abuse and ending dowry. Many of the players had witnessed or experienced violence as children, and the mentors were trained to be empathic.
A baseline and endline study showed that boys who participated in the programme were more likely to change specific beliefs such as thinking a man was sometimes justified in beating his girlfriend.
Like Manish, many say the project empowered them to intervene when they witnessed harassment. Kundan Kumar, 21, says it motivated him to tell a group of boys in his village to stop harassing a classmate. Amit Kumar (no relation to Kundan), 21, says he and his mentors urged his neighbours to let their daughter finish school. Many claim they now do more housework and have set goals for their lives.
“They were taking this information home with them,” says KG Santhya, a Population Council researcher who led the study.
Another aim of these projects is to show boys that sport doesn’t have to reinforce aggression and other stereotypes about men. In Georgia, famous rugby players have visited boys in schools to discuss masculinity and rugby values such as treating other players fairly, an idea they say should be applied to women and girls.
The Georgian Rugby Union now makes it mandatory for licensed coaches to teach players about gender equality, and so far a few hundred coaches have mentored about 3,000 boys in schools across Georgia.
Sport-based interventions are not without obstacles. In Bihar, some boys admit they were only interested in the project for the cricket coaching. Mentors also had to convince some families about the value of letting their sons participate.
Another challenge is funding. While representatives from Bihar’s state government have expressed interest in running more projects like this, it requires technical assistance from organisations with the means to train mentors. In Fiji, UN Women is designing a manual for other organisations to use.
The cricket coaching in Bihar has ended, but Kundan Kumar and his fellow players still get together at youth club. They’ve moved on to playing football.
“The guys keep asking when the project will start up again,” Kundan said on a recent afternoon. “And I always tell them, just keep teaching more people about what you learned.”
This article is part of a series on possible solutions to some of the world’s most stubborn problems. What else should we cover? Email us at [email protected]