Saturday 12 August 2023, 22:30

Emma Evans: You can’t be, what you can’t see

  • FIFA and the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) are working together on technical development across the region

  • 70% of girls and women in the region are deemed ‘insufficiently active.’

  • OFC’s women’s football strategy called All In is leveraging the momentum and excitement of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023™

The FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023™ is slowly approaching its final phase. A long list of on and off-field superlatives will ensure the afterglow of this historic event will take some time to fade, once this year’s winners lift the trophy at Stadium Australia on 20 August. In Oceania, work has long been underway to ensure that this moment-in-time lasts long beyond a month of elite competition. Foundations that in some countries were already sketched out, are now being cemented and built on, as demonstrated at FIFA’s Knowledge Exchange Workshop held at the end of July in New Zealand’s capital.

April Heinrichs, in her position as FIFA High Performance Specialist working for FIFA’s Technical Division compared the status quo of Oceania member associations when it comes to having a written strategy for the long-term development of female players. Each member association was asked to create a SWOT analysis to determine their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. The increasing number of competitions and potential for return on investment were examples of positives highlighted. However, these were balanced by a recognition of the current lack of investment in some countries, in turn leading to the fact that many girls and women do not yet have the same routes into the game on the field, or off it. Emma Evans is the OFC Women’s Football Manager, tasked with supporting the further development of the game in a region that represents just 0.4% of the world’s habitable surface. A former footballer herself, Evans turned to coaching and development in her mid-20’s, after a series of knee injuries prematurely ended her playing career.

OFC Women's Football Manager Emma Evans at the FIFA Coach Mentorship programme workshop

As she presented to the group of assembled Technical Directors and General Secretaries, the scale of opportunity, as well as the challenges ahead were laid bare. While 97% of girls in the Pacific say that playing sport makes them happy, a frighteningly high figure of 70% represents the number of girls and women in the region who are deemed ‘insufficiently active.’ In some countries or islands, a lack of regular competitions or equipment is the main barrier. In others, the role of family structures, influence of the church, or more simply, perceptions of safety (or lack of) for female athletes drive down participation. In Fiji and Samoa, 25% of female rugby players had experienced emotional, physical and/or sexual violence as a backlash against their decision to play sport, according to research. Speaking at FIFA’s Coach Mentorship Programme workshop at the end of May, Evans detailed how “we’re really trying to leverage the momentum and the excitement that the FIFA Women’s World Cup will bring to our region, through our OFC women’s football strategy called All In.

"We want to break down the barriers so people can access games at the highest possible level. So, we’ve created a number of fan zones and hubs, and taken the Women’s World Cup to the Pacific. “Hopefully, that not only inspires young girls and young boys to play, but also lets the parents see that women’s football can be a career pathway for their daughters, for their granddaughters, and that it’s something that they can support. We’re really taking a holistic approach, making sure the infrastructure and pathways surrounding football are there, ready for when these girls see the FIFA Women’s World Cup” explained Evans.

In women’s football circles, you'll often hear the quote: “You can’t be what you can’t see”. Representation and role models are key. Currently, less than 10% of registered coaches being women in the Pacific but 88% of those surveyed highlighted how having a female leadership role model would encourage their own involvement. Football alone however cannot change societal and cultural norms. According to a report by UN Women, 75% of adolescent boys think that it is OK to beat their wife. Girls in the Pacific also experience discrimination, exclusion, are marginalized and face inequalities in education, decision-making processes and access to health services. The Coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated these inequalities. Lockdowns have led to increased reporting of domestic violence. They have also resulted in greater burdens being placed on women and girls risking gains made in leadership engagement and participation.

One could be forgiven for thinking the situation is bleak, but as Evans pointed out, the role of football and sport can inspire, and create change. “Football plays an important role as a reference point and support network in many Pacific communities” she explained. “Well-designed and effectively delivered programmes can provide safe spaces to engage and support women and girls and facilitate interaction with boys and men to change gender stereotypes, build leadership capability and challenge perceptions. “Football can provide a platform to elevate and promote female athletes and leaders as role models for the next generation. My role is to support the member associations, alongside FIFA and other stakeholders, to continue to work towards delivering that.”