Sport

SPORTS EQUALITY

The playing fields are still far from level for women in sport

The playing fields are still far from level for women in sport
Referee Akhona Makalima. (Photo by Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Most male-dominated sports have branched out to include women only over the past few decades. Before that, women in sports such as football and rugby were an anomaly. Progress has been made to make the sports inclusive, but considerable work still needs to be done.

The Premier Soccer League’s (PSL) only female referee, Akhona Makalima, believes that being a female athlete in the male-dominated sports realm can be a very lonely and arduous journey.

“It is not an easy task, and it is not a joyful and happy environment as people would think. There are a lot of challenges that come from being a referee alone, and then there would even be more challenges from having to be a woman in a field that is dominated by men, and dominated by people that think they own football, they were born for football and they know football like the back of their hand,” said Makalima.

Babalwa Latsha of South Africa during the Women’s Rugby International match between South Africa and Scotland at City Park Stadium on 5 October 2019 in Cape Town. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

“SheRef”, as she is popularly known, was part of a stellar panel of South African female athletes which also included Springbok Women’s captain Babalwa Latsha, Spar Proteas skipper Bongi Msomi, wheelchair tennis champion Kgothatso Montjane, Olympic canoeist Bridgitte Hartley and boxing champion Bukiwe Nonina. The online event took place on Thursday 10 September and was hosted by Netball SA president Cecilia Molokwane.

The 32-year-old Makalima, who hails from Ngqamakhwe in the Eastern Cape, has been a mainstay in local women’s football, having kick-started her career as a midfielder in the Sasol League, where she played for Thunderbirds Ladies. She believes that self-serving leaders have contributed to stunting the commercial potential of women’s sport.

“It’s high time we stop talking, and start actioning. Because in all the federations the visions are there, everything we want to accomplish, everything that we want to do is there – written in black and white, but we don’t action them. How do we then action them? We need to also find people that are passionate about sports. We don’t need people that are going to fill in the seats and just enjoy the fruits of being in the seats,” said Makalima.

Bridgitte Hartley during the semi-final of the Women’s K1500m at Copacabana Lagoa on 17 August 2016 in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo: Wessel Oosthuizen / Gallo Images)

Hartley, who has a multitude of achievements to her name, including a bronze medal from the 2012 London Olympics, said some progress has been made towards equity in her discipline over the years.  

“There’s been so many challenges on the way, like when you enter competitions and the prize money that they offer is sometimes half of what they’ll offer for a man in the same competition and our canoes cost exactly the same, we spend the same amount of hours training, to get the same result. But they don’t see that the women are able to get the same prize money,” Hartley said.

“We’ve had a few women really campaigning and helping out in a few competitions, and people have stepped up and it’s become equal. But I think that’s one of the really big challenges that we’ve had to face – trying to be professional sportswomen and knowing that it’s not seen in the same light that we are actually professional and we deserve the same amount of reward.”  

Latsha, who became the first female African rugby player to score a professional contract, said female athletes were conscious of the fact that most of their disciplines were still quite young, but added they needed more attention in order to gain the required recognition.    

Babalwa Latsha: SA rugby prop goes pro – in Spain – and makes history

“Yes, women’s rugby is young in South Africa; only 15 years old. We’re still trying to grow the sport, we’re still trying to have it played more – especially at grassroots level, we’re still trying to make our mark on the international scene. I understand all of those things,” said Latsha.

“But the problem is beyond rugby, it’s a women’s sport problem. The first thing that we need to do is add commercial value to women’s sport. One of the better tools that we might use is policy, global policy where that specific policy speaks to the commercialisation of the sport.”  

Makalima is just the second female referee to officiate in the PSL after Deidre Mitchell, and earned her shot through the South African Football Association’s (Safa) initiative to get more women involved in the game. She added that even though there is still a long way to go for women’s sport and women in sport to receive recognition, there were some positives to take away.

“At some point, we cannot be punching at South Africa all the time, because when good is done we have to celebrate it. Because in Africa, South Africa is one of the countries that are doing well when it comes to women in sport.

“Sometimes I feel proud to be a South African in an era where the senior women’s team is being coached by a woman, the under-20 team is being coached by a woman, the under-17 team is being coached by a woman. So, when credit is due, we need to clap our hands, but there’s still a long way to go,” she said. DM

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