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Using Soccer to Reverse Violence Against Women

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Occurring less than two weeks apart, the violent protests surrounding the opening of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the shootings at UC Santa Barbara, clearly point out that bias breeds violence. Yet there is promising news. Just beyond the pitch, this same international sport, soccer, is being used to reverse the epidemic of inequality and violence against women and girls.

Violence against women and girls is a major global economic, health, and human rights issue. A World Health Organization fact sheet reports that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Astoundingly, the abuse of 35 percent of the population is often condoned; there persists a cultural aversion in many countries to prosecution and conviction of men who beat or rape women or girls. Sentencing is rare compared to numbers of assaults.

It has been 21 years since the UN adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, recognizing "the urgent need for the universal application to women of the rights and principles with regard to equality, security, liberty, integrity and dignity of all human beings." Yet this problem persists, ingrained in centuries old patterns, despite the recognition by the UN that violence against women is a key cause for poverty impacting children, communities and states.

Soccer may provide one part of the solution. In Brazil, where the World Cup is being held, UN agencies are distributing a million stickers in host cities, and they are waging an aggressive social media campaign to spread the message that men have a responsibility to end this global scourge.

And just as a sport like soccer provides a platform for women and girls to learn leadership skills and build confidence, it also can impact boys and young men in positive ways.

My students, with support from behavior change experts at the Population Media Center and the United Nations Population Fund, created BREAKAWAY, an innovative, serial-based soccer game for boys ages 8 to 15. The first three episodes debuted at the last World Cup in South Africa. Since its opening volley, BREAKAWAY has reached youth in more than 140 countries.

In the game, players confront challenging situations modeled after real-world examples of violence and bullying balanced by sportsmanship and teamwork.

And recently, a research study was released, showing that BREAKAWAY is an effective, transformative tool to address the rampant problem of violence against women.

In November, we worked with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the University of Sonsonate to host two youth camps in El Salvador. El Salvador has one of the highest per capita rates of femicide in the world.

Camp participants, boys ages 7 to 18, learned about the good qualities of sportsmanship, debated the rationale of different decision-making processes, wrote individual letters to the abusive characters, and wrote poems and rap songs about respect. They showed empathy to the characters that were mistreated in the game episodes and admiration for the positive role models. Additionally they sketched out real-life bullying scenarios, demonstrating some of the strategies they learned from the game and camp activities.

The World Cup will crown a champion this summer, but we need more men and women to be champions off the field in pursuit of the elimination of violence. A goal we must and can progress towards.

Ann DeMarle is director of Champlain College's Emergent Media Center and faculty advisor to more than 100 students who developed the game.