From Science to Swimming – Why Gender Equality and Sustainable Development Go Hand in Hand

Throughout 2018 our marine biologists here at Love The Oceans will be doing blog posts on topics of Named Days throughout the year. These blogs will focus on contemporary topics within science with the aim to reach more people and demonstrate the range of environmental, scientific and associated social problems we face today. To keep up to date, follow this blog, also found under the ‘News’ tab on our website. Without further ado, in celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I introduce our first blog in this marine series:

From Science to Swimming – Why Gender Equality and Sustainable Development Go Hand in Hand

Today is the 3rd celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a celebration created to remind us that both science and gender equality are vital for sustainable development, and that without gender equality in science sustainable development is not possible.

While the gender of a researcher might seem fairly insignificant, underrepresentation of women in science also manifests itself in underrepresentation of women in policy-making and programming, essentially leaving women behind when decisions are made regarding global issues such as poverty alleviation, climate change, health and education – issues that all affect women and girls harder than their male peers.

According to UNESCO only 28.4% of researchers worldwide are women. One of the main reasons that women and girls lag behind in science, is that girls have limited access to the education and opportunities that their male peers are offered.  However, unequal access to resources can’t in itself explain the gender gap: The average share of women in science in the European Union is 33.1 %, a mere 3.1 percentage points above Sub-Saharan Africa, clearly demonstrating that high living standards, equal access to education, resources and opportunities does not automatically translate into equal representation.

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The explanation for the underrepresentation of women in a variety of fields – despite every prerequisite for gender equality seemingly being present – is that girls continue to face stereotypes as well as social and cultural restrictions on what they are ‘allowed’ to do or be. In other words: It doesn’t matter that girls have access to exactly the same opportunities as boys, if it is not socially acceptable for girls to use these opportunities. Girls need access to the same opportunities as boys, as well as role models inspiring and empowering them to dare to dream big and beyond gender stereotypes.

In 2016 Disney launched Dream Big Princess, an international campaign to inspire girls around the world to dream big and aspire to become more than just a Disney Princess. Tapping into classic Disney Princess stories, the campaign showcased empowering photos of real-world girls and women dreaming big and beyond. The goal of the campaign was to raise funds for the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up programme, a campaign that with the UN’s own words is ‘uniting girls to change the world’. In October 2017 the #DreamBigPrincess campaign ended with a $1 million donation to the Girl Up programme – a truly happy ending giving any Disney film a run for its money!

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The campaign might have ended, but the message of both #DreamBigPrincess and #GirlUp stays relevant: Girls are powerful and have the potential to do anything, even change the world, if they are empowered and given the opportunity – and when girls are empowered it benefits all of us.

At Love The Oceans we are in a truly unique position to empower girls and women through our work by providing female role models and introducing alternative gender roles: Not only is Love The Oceans founded by a woman, it’s also run almost exclusively by women – an unusual sight in rural Mozambique where gender roles traditionally dictate motherhood and domestic chores for women, not managing businesses and directing research projects.

One of the, perhaps more untraditional, avenues we have taken at Love The Oceans to empower girls is through swimming lessons: In addition to teaching about marine biology and conservation in the local schools, we also teach swimming lessons. Despite the fact that 33% of the population lives within 25 km of the coast, very few Mozambicans know how to swim. We are hoping to change this in our area by giving free swimming lessons to the children from our local schools on Saturday afternoons. The lessons are crucial, not just to improve water safety, but also to encourage the children to get in the water and hopefully spark their passion for the Ocean.

Gender stereotypes can be hard enough to change in a classroom, but the issues are greatly magnified when the learning environment is moved into the pool. Until 2017 only boys participated in our swimming lessons – despite the fact that girls were invited too and offered exactly the same opportunities as the boys.

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In June 2017 we had a breakthrough when four girls showed up for swimming lessons.  However, one of the biggest challenges of getting girls to participate became obvious the moment the girls got in the water: They got in fully clothed. While the boys showed little hesitation about jumping in only wearing swim trunks or even occasionally their underwear, the girls didn’t remove a single clothing item before getting in the water. As you can imagine, being fully dressed – traditional capulana skirt and all – didn’t exactly make it easy for the girls to learn how to swim: The clothes restricted their movement and weighed them down. Hardly the ideal scenario for someone who isn’t capable of floating, let alone swimming! Getting ‘undressed’ for swimming lessons around the boys was an unexpected taboo we hadn’t accounted for.

Now, we could have fixed it by simply separating boys and girls, but decided against it – we wanted to enable the girls to feel equal and able participate, not just on the same terms as the boys, but also in the same space. In order to do so, we have adapted the set-up of our swimming lessons to ensure it is in line with cultural norms and traditions regarding clothing, and interactions between men and women:

The first step has been to fundraise appropriate swimwear for the girls, ensuring our staff are appropriately dressed, and only assigning female staff and volunteers to teach the girls. Mozambican customs require that clothing covers knees and shoulders, but without a full wetsuit for every participant this is hard to achieve for the purpose of swimming. Luckily we have discovered that shorts and T-shirt is an acceptable alternative. We are therefore trying to fundraise board shorts and rash guards for the girls to wear over their swimming costumes, and we ask staff and volunteers to wear either board shorts and rash guards or shorts and T-shirt over their own swim wear.

However, we quickly realised that even with all the right resources available, the girls were unlikely to jump in the deep end and make a serious effort at learning to swim, if they didn’t have a female role model with them in the pool – and not just any female role model, it would have to be a Mozambican. This is how Estrela ended up being an integral part of our swimming lessons: Estrela is the wife of our in-country representative, Pascal, who translates and teaches both classroom and swimming lessons with our volunteers – and therefore was the most natural person to ask.

Getting Estrela in the pool, proving to the girls that Mozambican women can learn to swim, has proven a success and given the girls the role model they needed to dare jump in the deep end and learn to swim, bringing us one step close to gender equality (at least in the pool). Hopefully Estrela and our swimming girls will encourage other women and girls to dare break gender stereotypes and empower them to dream beyond traditional gender roles.

#February11 #WomenandGirlsinScience #PressforProgress #GirlUp #DreamBigPrincess

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Our swimming lessons would not be possible without the support of Vossie and Nellie Vosloo from Pleasure Bay Resort who generously lend us their pool for the lessons every Saturday afternoon and have donated wetsuits and swim gear.

We would also like to thank Zoggs UK who sponsor our swimming lessons, as well as donations from Catalina Lodge, our volunteers, Cathy Cronje, TYR and and anyone else that has donated equipment to this initiative.

If you would like to make a donation to our swimming lessons or our work in general, please contact us or use the ‘Donate’ option at the top of the page.