Sports News

Brazil's Olympic legacy: teenage girls tackle taboos through sport

RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Each week in a northern suburb of Rio de Janeiro, a dozen or so girls meet to play handball but are learning far more than how to master the fast-paced game.

Part of a project called One Win Leads to Another, organized by U.N. Women and the International Olympic Committee, the teens take part before each game in group sessions with a psychologist talking about women’s rights, reproduction and sexual health.

One Win Leads to Another, which also receives support from the Brazilian Olympic Committee, is one of several programs aimed at building a social legacy in Rio beyond this summer’s Olympic Games.

The aim of One Win is to create a “safe space” for girls to discuss subjects that may likely be taboo at home or school, Thays Prado, a project manager at the United Nations’ women’s agency, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The girls, quiet and shy at first, have opened up, Prado said.

“I like the program and have learned a lot about feminism and women’s rights,” said 15-year-old Marcelly Victória.

“It’s my mother’s role to approach those topics but as she doesn’t do it, I now bring them up myself,” she said.

Her mother is relieved and pleased that they can talk about subjects like sexual health at home, she said.

Not only do the girls learn but they play better together at handball after the discussion groups, said Anderlina Rocha, the group’s psychologist.

They are dedicated. Some travel as long as two hours by public transportation to reach the center. Almost half the girls grew up and live in the Cidade de Deus, or City of God, a notorious favela.

They have been inspired by the recent success of another City of God resident, Rafaela Silva, who this summer took home an Olympic gold medal for Brazil in women’s judo.

Another group hoping to capitalize on the momentum of the Olympic Games is BrazilFoundation, a U.S.-based non-profit trying to raise money for a number of local social initiatives in Rio through a #TEAMRIO fundraising campaign.

“The aftermath of the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games left a very positive feeling among Brazilians,” said Mônica de Roure, vice president of BrazilFoundation.

But considerable needs remain, such as investment, she said.

Government spending on the Olympics provoked much opposition in Brazil, with critics saying most of Rio’s population would not benefit from the huge event held in their city.

Most investment centered on the wealthy Barra da Tijuca district, home of the Olympic Village, which is to be turned into a luxury housing development.

A new transportation system built for the Games links up southern areas of the city, but critics say the northern and eastern areas, where many working people live, were in greater need of an improved system and that work there would have cost less.


But some parts of Rio did see important infrastructure changes. A new Olympic Boulevard and port regeneration project to the north have breathed new life into a core area, for example.

One Win aims to encourage disadvantaged girls in sports in areas far from the high-profile improvements.

It has so far been rolled out at in 16 locations around Rio.

A discussion of sexual and reproductive issues with teenage girls is of “huge value” in a country, where it is hard to talk openly about such topics, said Prado.

They are not discussed often in schools, and a political shift to the right has made such conversations even more fraught, Prado said.

“Some teachers have been accused or denounced for addressing these kinds of issues. They are punished and are fired or threatened,” she said.

Stereotypes about female roles and behavior intensify when girls in Brazil hit their teenage years, she said.

“They alone are responsible for preventing pregnancy and at the same time their bodies are becoming very sexualized,” she said. “It is very complicated for them to deal with all this pressure.”

One in five births in Brazil are to mothers aged 19 or younger, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Teen pregnancy affects young women from the “most vulnerable” social groups, said Anna Cunha, a UNFPA program officer.

Experts link teen pregnancy to a lack of sex education and a perception that girls from poor backgrounds do not have opportunities for economic advancement that could be an alternative to early motherhood.

For Marcelly and her teammates, the program opens a window to a different kind of future, where women can break with traditional stereotypes.

Raphaela Lacerda, 16, said the classes have boosted her self-esteem, particularly by making her feel less embarrassed about playing sports.

“People think it’s not a woman’s thing, that you shouldn’t feel confident about playing sport,” she said.

“But the program has helped me to start to understand what I should feel confident about.”