Sport In Africa - Do Women Have A Chance?

Knowledge bank: While Africa is rapidly improving in the world of sport, we should ask ourselves where are the African sportswomen? In this presentation I will explain how surviving and succeeding in sport as a woman is still a nightmare for many Tanzanian girls and women.

The Case of Sexual Harassment - Tanzania

By: Prisca B. Massao and Professor Kari Fasting
A Paper Presented at the Third International Conference for Media Professionals in the Globalised Sports Worlds Nov. 10-14, 2002. Copenhagen, Denmark.


When we think of Africa in the world of sport most of us think of the male teams and individualsthe national football teams in the World Cup, Kenyan and Ethiopian long distance runners, some male sprinters, and the professional African soccer players in Europe.  While Africa is rapidly improving in the world of sport, we should ask ourselves where are the African sportswomen?  In this presentation I will explain how surviving and succeeding in sport as a woman is still a nightmare for many Tanzanian girls and women.

Women in Tanzanian Sport
Administratively sport in Tanzania is like many other countries. It has hierarchical order from the society to the ministry dealing with sport as shown in the figure below.

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Source: Directorate of Sport Ministry of Education Sport and Culture Dar Es Salaam Tanzania (1999).

Although sports clubs according to the above administrative sport organisation is shown as the smallest unit there actually exist many sport teams that don’t belong to sport clubs. The teams are organised locally in villages, working places, districts, and some of them are women’s teams.  Due to the conditions that are needed, and given the women’s sport economic problems such as owning a training ground, most of the women’s teams do not manage to reach the club registration stage. Male teams experience more sponsorship advantages than do the women (Jones, J. 2001)

However this presentation will focus on the status and conditions of some female athletes in sport in a narrower aspect. It is based on the results of a study, which interviewed male and female sport-leaders and practitioners in Tanzania. Most of those participants were women who had been athletes themselves and were dealing with female athletes. Among the reasons given which are still hindering women from participating effectively in Tanzanian sport are patriarchy and the dominating and harassing culture in sport. It is on these factors that this paper will focus.

Sports Women in Society
In Africa sport activities continue to be legitimatised as a male preserve.This starts from the family, but includes other institutions around and in sport itself. For example there is a wide spread perception that sport is not a decent activity for girls.

There is also a tendency of some men to not allow their partners or wives to actively engage in sport. As a result marriage or other relationships have often spelled the end to a sporting career for most of the women, since few men have the tolerance to allow their partners to continue with sport (Boit 1988; Massao, P.2001). This widespread hesitation was among the points of departure for finding out what really happens to some women in sport? If sport is a respected and desirable activity why, do some people prevent their female relatives from engaging in sports activities? Why is sport still regarded as an activity for unmarried young girls and not a desirable long-term activity, which should be positive for Tanzanian women both socially and economically?

Sexual Harassment and Sport
Some scholars like Brackenridge (2001) who has written extensively about sexual abuse in sport has also gathered sketchy evidence from international conferences and events for women in sport about sexual harassment and abuse in Africa. It is a fact that female athletes in African countries also experience sexual harassment and abuse from their male coaches as a matter of course in their progress towards sporting achievements. However this has not been investigated seriously in many African countries including Tanzania. There remain both rumours and  myths but their effects is considerable. This can be due to a number of reasons including the taboos surrounding discussing the problem, protecting the harassing culture, and lack of resources for female sports. Uncovering the harassing culture for many institutions even outside sport has not been an easy thing for most of the women due to their positions in the society. Most of these cases are dismissed by the argument that they lack evidence and un-assurance of confidentiality for the victim. This has also been common in higher education institutions in Tanzania such as the University of Dar Es Salaam. Situations like that are not uncommon in sport and it is made worse since girls in sport are less focussed on in general.

For a long time sport has been among the highly suspect areas for girls and women in most of Tanzanian sport due to the possibility of sexual harassment and abuse. This kind of situation has been among the reasons that many families do not allow or encourage female relatives (daughters, sisters or wives) to participate in sport. Several participants in my study expressed the harassment issue in different ways. One participant said that all kinds of people are found in sport. Just as in society, a whole continuum from bad to good people are in sport. However, the professional ethics are seen to be looser in sport compared to other institutions of the society. This requires that the women who participate in sport to be regarded as the victims or even just entertainers of men both in sport and outside sport. The participants I interviewed admitted that sexual harassment of different forms are found in sport. It was expressed that some men in sport use or manipulate their position in order to get sexual favours from the female athletes. However the victims, who most of the time are young uneducated girls, are looked down upon if they are strong and resist the perpetrator nobody can force them. The patriarchal dominance is not a consideration. It is assumed to be a valid point of view.

When the situation involves a male coach and a female athlete it is difficult to call this an equalitarian relationship given the unequal power relationship. Most of the female athletes are young, have a limited chance to express their views and are expected to listen and obey. This situation is also based on the cultural gender relations especially between young girl and the adult man. Girls are expected to be respectful and humble to adults, particularly to males. Due to those expectations, these coaches can use their positions of power in trying to seduce these female athletes. They sometimes promise them rewards, such as selecting them on national teams or being invited to international tournaments.

As one of my participants said, if a girl is strong nobody can force her. But what is the situation if the girl resist and look for support for encouraging harassing free environment in order to practice her sport career peacefully? That is, how is the sexual harassment accusation handled in the case the female athlete who has raised it.  One sport leader told me the following.

I remember there was one girl she complained in the media about how she had been harassed by her coach. And when she said that in media the coach refused to coach after being followed by the media. I called that girl and gave her counselling. I told her its not good to bring such things into the media.(Massao, P. B. 2001)

Then I asked this officer:

"Why did that female athlete decide to bring the issue to the media?"

She replied to me that:

"It was due to ignorance that she didn’t know the right place to send her complains"

"And then what happened to that coach after that?"

"He was only given a warning by that sport associations discipline committee since there was no evidence to convict him."

This issue was also not forwarded to a judicial committee due to the so-called lack of proof or evidence. However it was clear that, not enough effort or interest was shown to try to look for evidence when the matter was raised.

In such circumstances, first there is a tendency of protecting or hiding the harassing environment to the public. This is a powerful argument used to silence the victim even by the women sport leaders. As we can see from this quotation the predator is given more credence than the victim. Although there are no special places to report such accusations in sport and these girls cant afford to bring their predator to court or to other legal systems but the victim was still counselled not to expose such accusations in the media. We can see how frustrating it might be even if one wished to do something with the harassing culture. Although it is important for the female athletes to be assured safety, privacy and confidentiality (especially when she is a victim) the situation here is the other way round. The perpetrator seems to be protected while the victim seems to be silenced in that she should not bring sexual scandals into the media.

At the same time it is acknowledged that female athletes are not well informed about how and where to express such problems. Coaches are still so respected that sexual scandals against them are silenced in order to keep the coaches who threaten to quit the job if the harassment scandal continues to be publicised in the media. When I enquired on why there was no a special channel available to female athletes to report their problems among the answers was that, there were no so many women in sport to the extent of introducing a unit like that. It was assumed that since there are few women in sport there was no need of having a specific person or committee for following up and pressing complaints for sexual harassment cases in sport. She also added:

"Maybe netball needs such thing"

Another story about the group which also threatens the female athletes’ development in sport is male athletes. However most of the time it is the female athletes who are publicised negatively, being called bitches or other related negative terms. One example is the sexual scandal, which occurred in Johannesburg in the All African Games 1999. The girls on the netball team were accused through media of not being serious about their performances instead they were busy finding men in Johannesburg. This was also reported to be the cause of their poor performance in those tournaments. Fortunately one of the sport leaders was with this team and explained the situation as follows:

"I suppose although female players are the ones who were blamed for a lack of discipline, how about the boxing guys from the Tanzanian team who were with these girls? And I wonder why this scandal is blamed on the female players alone? Well, but this can not be called harassment since it was based on mutual agreement maybe!!!? Those things do happen when athletes gather but female athletes are required to carry the blame and stigmatisation. But why did the media negatively publicise the female athletes while it was lack of discipline for both the male and female athletes."

My interviewee didn’t call this Johannesburg case harassment but rather willing acts among the consenting male and female athletes. She also pointed out the incidence of the problem of unplanned pregnancy, which happened due to the athletes gathering in training camps prior to competitions. Such acts and information have great implication to the sport institution as a socialising agent especially in a country like Tanzania where the spreading of HIV and AIDS are big threat for the nation.

Media as an important institution seems also to perpetuate this culture of publicizing female athletes and victims negatively. Women in sport are often regarded as temptresses who precipitate the harassing culture in sport. It would seem more truthful and positive to concentrate on their athletic performance. Female sport leaders have always expressed dissatisfaction with the way the media portray women in sport. One of the woman interviewed complained to me that if you told the journalists about something positive or constructive about women in sport they would never report it, instead they just report things as they want to see them and these often negatively portray the female athletes.

This kind of atmosphere stigmatises women in sport since it seems that they are just there for sexual purposes.

Most women sport leaders preferred separation of girls and boys during competition or training seasons. I asked them why they think that would be better? One of them said that the lack of self-confidence of the female athletes made them more likely to comply with the sexual demands pledged by coaches or male athletes. Therefore the aim was to keep female athletes away from harassing and/or destructive environments during their sporting careers. However this is not enthusiastically supported by the majority of sport leaders who are men. They give as an excuse that there is a lack of facilities to train athletes in separate groups. Separation can be a short term solution since study findings have found that in work places and educational settings (that can also apply in sporting settings) that girls or women who study or work in an environment in which the majority is female are less likely to be sexually harassed (Grauerholz 1996; In Brackenbridge 2001). In Tanzania this concept is also practiced by many parents who prefer to send their daughters in girls boarding schools which are believed to have less destructive environments. This allows their daughters to concentrate on their studies during the most important and vulnerable period for their career development. However in my point of view, this can be a short-term strategy since in the future women will have to work in mixed environments.

As we have seen so far the problem of sexual harassment in sport is always viewed as motivated and left to the female athletes themselves despite of the understanding that female athletes have little say or power to change the harassing environment in sport. As we have seen the harassed female athlete can have only two options either to keep silent or to quit sport. The philosophy of the sports media and how it decides to tackle this problem is crucial in advancing both the ideals of democracy and the interests of sport.

Given the domination and harassing culture I have discussed in this paper it is difficult to see how sportswomen can become substantial athletes both at the national and international level. Female athletes in Tanzania are still not taken as important resource figures to be motivated, protected, developed and retained in sport. Thus there is a need and it is the time for sport community both local and international to acknowledge and find strategies if we real want to see more African women in the future international sport. That would help to clean up the sport institution itself as well as to raise the public trust on sport for girls and women. This could also help to make family members encourage girls and women to do sport, and make the society in general gain more interest on the positive aspects of sport for girls and women than the one portrayed currently.

Unethical behaviours of the coaching profession seems to be the source of this problem. During my investigation there was no specific policy on sexual harassment in sport. These matters were handled by technical and disciplinary committees in the concerned sport association.  The intimate distance or physical closeness between the coach and athlete seems to be unclear and perceived sometimes interchangeably with normal intimacy relationships or part of sport practices respectively. Policies, codes of conduct and ethical statements have to be developed and monitored. For instance the issue of expecting or demanding sexual favours from athletes in order to favour that specific athlete must be scrutinised.

Thank you.


Brackenridge, C. (2001) Spoil Sports: Understanding and Preventing Sexual Exploitation in Sport. London: Routledge.
Boit, (1988). Where are the Kenyan Women Runners? Viewpoint, NSA 4: 22-27 by IAAF.
Jones, J. (2001) Corporate Sponsorship of Women Sports in Tanzania Mainland: A qualitative Analysis of Experiences and Prospects. Master Thesis, University of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
Massao, P. B. (2001). Women in Sport. The Feminist Analysis of the Sport Development Policy of Tanzania:  Master Thesis, The Norwegian University of Sport and Physical Education: Oslo, Norway.

Prisca B. Massao is a master graduate from Norwegian University of Sport and Physical Education (NUSPE), Curenntly works as a research assistant at NUSPE.  Address: Sandakerveien 67G, 0477 Oslo, Norway. E-mail:,

Kari Fasting is a professor at Institute of Social Science at Norwegian University of Sport and Physical Education.


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