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Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos

Volleyball gives Myanmar girls a sporting chance

Team game programs help to challenge expectations about female roles in society

Myanmar girls take part in a volleyball training event in Yangon on May 20. (​Photo by Fiona MacGregor​)​

YANGON -- Urban Myanmar may be changing fast. But across the country on Saturday mornings most teenage girls will be at home, helping their families with household chores and doing what is expected of them by wider society -- keeping quiet in the background.

So the spectacle of almost 200 girls running around a park in central Yangon on a recent weekend, yelling loudly, laughing and hitting -- or attempting to hit -- volleyballs over a net, hoola-hooping and taking part in wheelbarrow races, was as remarkable as it was exhilarating.

In a country where women are taught to be quiet, it is unusual to see nearly 200 girls yelling, hula-hooping and playing volleyball in a central Yangon park. (​Photo by Fiona MacGregor​)​

The "girls only" event organized by local nongovernmental organization Girl Determined provided a rare opportunity for girls from poor backgrounds in Myanmar to take part in sports and games in public.

The organization aims to support over 2,000 adolescent girls across the country in realizing their potential through peer group-led activities, and sport is an important part.

The Yangon gathering, run with international sports organization Women Win, was aimed at more than just improving volleyball techniques. It is part of a program to encourage leadership skills and build confidence among adolescent girls -- a particularly marginalized group in Myanmar.

"In life-skills education, sports involves getting girls thinking about their rights, empowering and helping them build their leadership skills in their broad sense and challenging gender norms," said Brooke Zobrist, Girl Determined founder.

Phyn New Win, 18, joined a Girl Determined program in the organization's early years when she was just 13. Now a young adult, she is still involved, but as a volunteer. When I asked if she was having fun she grabbed my hand and shook her head before resting it on my arm with an air of regret.

Happy and motivated

"I like this the most!" she confessed, looking at the younger girls playing their games. "I want to play! It makes me feel happy and motivated."

Volleyball can be played in <i>longhyi</i>, the country's traditional long wrap-round skirt. (Photo by Fiona MacGregor)

She said many girls are barred by their families and others from taking part in sports once they reach puberty. "They say we should not play in public places. They say our bodies are changing and we shouldn't play," she explained.

One of the reasons she likes volleyball so much is that "it's a sport we can play everywhere in everyday clothes. You can play in your longhyi," she added, referring to the traditional, long wrap-round skirt still worn by most women across Myanmar.

In impoverished communities where girls have only a few clothes and may well not have trousers to wear, this is an important factor. It also reflects powerful cultural biases and concerns including those relating to appearance.

A girl holds a poster of American mixed martial artist Michelle Waterson. (​Photo by Fiona MacGregor​)​

"In Myanmar and across Southeast Asia culturally for girls to be physical and competitive is not [generally] considered acceptable, said Zobrist. "There's really big issues around body images and many girls don't want to be tanned and muscular. There are a lot of misconceptions [about sport] turning [girls] into a boy or lesbian."

Raise The Curtain, a 2015 report by Myanmar's Gender Equality Network, a local NGO, on gender and sport, found that a range of prejudices act as barriers to girls' participation in sports, including ideas about female athletes not getting married or being unable to have children.

"The idea of women running and playing was seen as adverse to the quiet and composed behavior considered desirable for women. Sayings such as 'A woman's step is worth a million coins' reinforce the perceived value of a woman's gentleness, grace and modesty and discourage participation in sports," the report noted.

Women athletes

Myanmar's 2013 hosting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations games did encourage greater acceptance of women in sport, according to the report, and the country's elite women athletes have performed well in international competitions.

The Yangon event was organized by local ​nongovernment organization ​​​Girl Determined in conjunction with Women Win and Volleyball Australia. (​Photo by Fiona MacGregor​)​

But for most girls from ordinary backgrounds the challenges and opportunities around participating in sport start at the most basic levels. Playing team games such as volleyball means shouting to one another -- girls have to raise their voices when many have been told being loud is unacceptable.

"Before I was very shy. I used to be very afraid to shout loud. I was afraid I'd be wrong. Now I'm not shy. We need to call for other girls to communicate when we play and get more confidence," said 13-year-old Ei Pyae.

"I think all girls should get the chance to play sport because they learn more confidence," added her friend Kyi Kyi Theint, 14.

The two girls had just returned in late May from a 10-day volleyball camp in Myanmar's volatile Shan State, scene of clashes between government troops and ethnic insurgents. The camp drew together participants from Girl Determined supported by Women Win and Volleyball Australia.

Meg Smith, programs director for Women Win, said Myanmar had stood out for the organization because of just how little access to sports coaching was being provided to girls. "We use sport to support participation, [learning] strategy and to promote girls' rights -- not just for sport's sake," she said.

"If we get them on the field we can get them learning to do things they didn't think possible and the people in their families and the communities see girls can do that and it breaks down obstacles," Zobrist added.

The girls who took part agreed. "I feel very happy about [playing sport], said Mya Yin Pon, 13, another Girl Determined member, who said learning to play sport had increased her confidence.

"Our parents don't encourage girls, they only encourage boys. Now my parents encourage me to come [to play sports]. It is good for us girls. The [program] helps a lot of girls be strong and make their dreams come true."

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