How the World Cup Can Improve Rights for Women

This week, President Bill Clinton is hosting top Latin American leaders from business, government, and NGOs in Rio de Janeiro for the Clinton Global Initiative Latin America meeting, to explore ways to strengthen the region’s progress – and apparently to talk sports, as well.

Sports are huge in Brazil right now, with the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. But what could be the lasting legacy for the FIFA World Cup and Olympic Games in Brazil, beyond new stadiums?

Women’s rights would be a good place to start.

Globally, there is perhaps no other rights violation as entrenched and pervasive as the violence, discrimination, marginalization and inequity faced by girls and women.

Here’s how the World Cup could advance women’s rights both in sports and in general:

1. Open top positions in sports leadership to women.

What if FIFA and other soccer organizations used the event to highlight the need for gender equity on their boards?

FIFA has struggled with this. It took 109 years for the international governing body to seat a woman on its executive board. Lydia Nsekera, from Burundi, was elected in 2013 and remains the sole woman on the 26-member committee.

The problem persists among smaller soccer organizations, as well. The UK Football Association waited until it was approaching its 150th birthday before appointing Heather Rabbatts as its first female board member in 2011.

2. Put the Women’s World Cup on the same stage with the Men’s.

The World Cup should follow the Olympic and Paralympic model and host the Women’s World Cup before or after the Men’s World Cup.

This would bring rightful honor — not to mention media and resources — to the world’s top female soccer players.

3. Make the conversation about human rights.

One in three women will experience gender-based violence in her lifetime.
We can capitalize on the 2014 World Cup and Olympic Games to make this change.

It would take just a sliver of the World Cup resources to shine a light on how we can stop gender-based violence.

For example, all of the World Cup teams could unite to deliver a strong message and to stand up against gender based violence. What a powerful way to influence the next generation of youth.

The opportunity to engage and influence boys and men in this cause would be unprecedented and heroic. Perhaps 50 years from now, we could look back at Brazil as the sporting era that finally turned the tide on women’s rights across the world.

Maria Bobenrieth is the executive director of Women Win, a member of the Clinton Global Initiative.