A big week

As I sit here icing my knee recovering from an ACL reco, I reflect on the big week we had. Thousands of women and men around the world acknowledged women, organising events where women shared their stories and inspired others. Depending on which side of the fence you sit with regards to celebrating a day or week specifically for women, we know that story telling, sharing our challenges and strategies, and connecting with others makes us feel good.  

Capacity building for young women and gender equality is embedded in the work we do at Creating Chances and Football United. Over the years we’ve seen participants grow, developing the confidence to pursue opportunities and work towards a goal, at the same time staying connected to the organisation. As we do every year, we decided to dedicate the week to our female staff, volunteers and participants in our program. The theme was #inspireconnectplay. Just over 200 girls from diverse backgrounds came together to be inspired, to connect with new people, and to play sport (or maybe just take a day off school? And then soon realise they were inspired, they connected and they played and had a bloody good time). Participants travelled from East to West of Sydney; they were girls who had just recently arrived to the Australia supported and encouraged by their teachers and peers to gain new experiences, Indigenous Australian senior school leaders, soccer players, rugby players, all took part throughout the week.

Many of us are familiar with the power sport has to creative positive social change,  foster positive youth development, self confidence and a growth mindset, and to provide a platform to share information and educate girls and women and their communities about women's rights, health issues and more. But in most cases the environment is dominated by male coaches and male management. Female coaches, administrators and role models are vital components for ongoing participation and increasing equality.

I like to take pride in the work we do at Football United and Creating Chances. A 2015 report by The Women's Game (“Girls football participation hits all-time high”), highlights the reasons for increased participation of football for girls from minority groups and migrant communities, and makes specific reference to Football United’s role in this achievement. We face many challenges, but it helps that 40% of our coaching and facilitation staff are female. At a grassroots level we are able to address this gender bias and provide access to coaching qualifications and opportunities to use these skills within their community. The gender balanced environment provided by Football United not only increases short term participation amongst females but also the long term opportunities to grow and diversify the volunteer and paid workforce available to Football in Australia. Not only is it about growing the confidence of female players but it is also about normalising women in leadership positions. Most of our female coaches and facilitators and incredibly influential to boys and girls in our programs.

Women and Leadership

At our Gilbert and Tobin Young Women’s Forum, Moya Dodd (FIFA exco member, AFC member, former Matilda) reminded the girls (all of us actually) that “whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right”. The message is clear: be yourself, and think about how we think about ourselves. Moya also pointed out that it was 5 years since the FIFA hijab ban was lifted. A campaign led by Prince Ali, Hesterine, and Moya to lift the ban placed on Muslim women who choose to wear hijab on the football field. Take small steps to cross the river and you’ll get to where you want to go. The efforts to lift the ban took 5 years. But in that time there was a huge growth in Muslim women’s participation in sport.

This week has made me reflect on how far we’ve come since the days that inspired me to do what I do. In 2005 I was faced with a dilemma that threatened my ability to play the sport that I loved. In 2008 I found other women in a similar position to me and I knew something had to be done. While I was at university, I took it upon myself to organise an inter-university women’s futsal competition open to members of the community. Not long after that I was contacted by a migrant resource centre to help develop a ‘youth empowerment through sport’ program for girls from refugee and newly arrived communities. I had developed a swimming for health program, using my experience and passion for swim education to promote healthy relationships and healthy lifestyles parallel to swimming lessons. I also developed leadership camps and futsal competitions for women. While the challenges still exist, parents are realising the role sport plays in the development of their children, especially when see they other successful and inspirational women in sport as positive role models for their daughters.

Our week featured women with such calibre. The Female Football Festival (celebrating Female Football Week with Sydney FC and Football NSW), The Sydney FC match day event and the regular 25 programs we run per week were all managed and facilitated by extraordinary women.  

This week has also given me the chance to further reflect on my leadership and the position I am in. Being a footballer and a former captain has instilled within me values that guide my actions and decisions daily such as taking responsibility for myself and my team, being resilient and thinking positive when we are behind or faced with challenges. My faith also teaches me values of striving for excellence in everything that I do. In June 2016 I was fortunate to have taken part in the Women’s Sport Leadership Academy in the UK, a program bringing together women in middle management positions in sport. It gave me the chance to network, identify my strengths, develop mentoring and strategic thinking skills and set the wheels in motion to achieve my short to long term vision.

I’m a believer that humans are inherently good, and want to do good. People want to be part of something but often don’t know how. I am fortunate and blessed to have been mentored by some incredible people generous enough to take time to guide me. Now that I am in the position I’m in, I feel that it is my duty to pass on what I’ve learnt to others; to allow others the chance to join you on the journey whilst also providing them opportunities to set their own path and create their own story – they will endure challenges and make mistakes. I’ve learnt to be ok with making mistakes - I’ve learnt to get on with it and do it better and different the next time.

Assmaah Helal