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Zambia’s Female Boxing Star Challenges Stereotypes

Zambia’s Esther Phiri showed that women can compete in spheres most people think least likely when she traded explosive punches with Bulgarian Monica Petrova in an international boxing tournament in Lusaka. Attracting over 8000 impressed spectators, Zambia’s first ever international female boxing bout challenged gender stereotypes as the two exhibited professional boxing skills rivalling that of male counterparts.

The staging of the prestigious event on 18 March was not only good for the two female boxer or Zambia, but for gender activists as well. Boxing is known to be the men’s sport in Zambia, and indeed most of the world. The two women put that myth to rest as they competed in an action-packed 8-round bout.

With each blow, one could just imagine how many people watching could never imagine a woman in a boxing ring. Ms Phiri, who was in a class of her own, delivered vicious punches against her challenger Ms Petrova, whom she defeated to retain her title as the Women International Boxing Federation (WIBF) super featherweight champion.

With Zambia still failing to attain 30 percent women representation in parliament and other key political positions as required by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Ms Phiri’s success was set to have great meaning to women and girls in Africa and the rest of the world.

At their 2001 Summit in Malawi, SADC Heads of State and signed the Protocol on Culture, Information and Sport, which aimed to raise levels of regional co-operation and encourage the development and implementation of related policies and programmes consistent with the principles of the region.

The Protocol recognises the importance of sport to national and regional development, and says that member states “shall cooperate in ensuring gender equality and equity in the areas of culture, information and sport.”

However, in reality, girls face many challenges in becoming involved in sports. Family and home responsibilities, along with social expectations, often mean that girls are not encouraged to take up sport. Yet sports are known to be a vital part of personal development, building skills and exposing young people to different experiences, such as competition, which develop confidence and self-esteem.

This coming August, SADC Heads of State will be considering elevating the SADC Declaration on Gender and Development to a Protocol. Moving towards this, it is evident that gender equality is about many things, including the rights of girls and women to engage in a range of activities, even those usually reserved for men, from political office to the boxing ring.

The country has a world champion in Ms Phiri, who has proven to be a force to reckon with and an inspiration to other Zambian women that there is power in undertaking challenging things. Young girls watching Ms Phiri must be thinking that if boxing is open to them, then surely any path is theirs for the taking.

With hard work by people like Exodus International Boxing Promotion (EIBP) director Anthony Mwamba, who is involved in promoting the sport, female boxing might become Zambia’s second most famous sport next to football.

South Africa has so far succeeded when it comes to women’s football (soccer). The Banyana Banyana have made it big on the African soil and world over in football. Women’s football has a big following in the country because of the significance South Africa Football Association (SAFA) had attached to the sport.

Zambia has attempted to form women’s football leagues in Lusaka but unfortunately, the sport is still in its infant stage. The Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) has no interest in it. FAZ’s action is retrogressive towards the attainment of gender equality in sport and it is not surprising to see women’s football being surpassed by boxing.

The need to have equal participation of men and women in all sectors of society in Zambia cannot be over-emphasised, gender activists hold. “It is time that women are recognised as key partners in national development, and part of that is sports development,” they say.

Sports development is seen as one way that countries can develop the potential of all of their people, including women and girls. An active role in the sporting world can have many benefits, not only for health, but also socially and economically.

As the Southern African region moves closer to the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa, activists urge politicians and society at large to pay attention to how we encourage both genders to become involved in sports of all kinds.

The boxing careers of Ms Phiri and Ms Petrova, along with women like US-based Lailah Ali, the daughter to former boxing legend Muhamed Ali, are set to continue to popularise the sport. This is one more example of the many varied roles that women finally have started playing, also in Africa.