The National Sports Bill: Is It Fair To The Fairer Sex?

Posted on May 22, 2012 in Sports

By Karmanye Thadani:

It is fairly well known that a National Sports Bill has been drafted and is scheduled to be tabled in the monsoon session of the Parliament. Being a lawyer by qualification who has taken a keen interest in the issue of gender issues in the field of sport (I have co-authored, with two friends, namely Shweta Sharma and Devaditya Chakravarti, a book on the subject titled ‘Women and Sport in India and The World: A Socio-Legal Perspective’), I would, in my humble capacity, opine that this proposed legislation is not fully fair to the fairer sex. And I say this being a man, and that too one who doesn’t support the idea of reserving seats for women in the Parliament. This is not to say that the National Sports Bill does any inherent injustice to females, but it is certainly not at par with sports legislations in countries like the United States of America in this respect, though one expected that if India is coming up with a full-fledged sports legislation, it would derive the best from already existing sports legislations the world over, at least the well-known ones, in at least the very important respects, such as this one.

Before we address what is lacking in the Bill, it may be useful to outline the issue of gender inequality in sport, particularly in the Indian context. Sport is a universal medium of exercise as well as recreation, but often, patriarchal setups that undermine women’s capabilities, particularly physical capabilities (doesn’t matter if they too have successfully climbed Mt. Everest or that some of the most prominent names in the sphere of car-racing, in which men and women compete with each other, happen to be women. Other examples can be cited as well, such as the female Australian cricketer Elysse Perry taking wickets of male batsmen in an official match in her own country in which she was invited to play or closer home, girls’ cricket teams defeating boys’ cricket teams, though younger to them, in Baroda Cricket Association matches). Myths about sports having an adverse effect on women’s reproductive health and beauty, lead our society to have a fairly discouraging attitude towards girls’ sports, particularly when it comes to team sports (in individual sports, the glamour quotient comes into play, besides other factors). Even more so in the specific cases of cricket and football (though the latter has gained more acceptability for girls in parts of urban India), though basketball as a sport for girls is very much acceptable, rather strangely so. Issues with respect to sports clothing also come into the picture. Issues with respect to dearth of media coverage, official apathy and shortage of funds when it comes to women’s team sports at the professional level, are only symptoms of this huge sociological problem, which has also been depicted in the movies Chak de India as Bend It Like Beckham. Sexual harassment of professional female sportspersons is another very major issue.

It is equally important to note that sport is not just one of the spheres in which gender issues have to be tackled, but also that sport itself acts as a medium for empowering women. As has been stated in a United Nations document — “The relationship between gender equality and sport is not solely about achieving equality in women’s participation and treatment within sports, but it is also about promoting ‘sport for gender equality’, or harnessing the potential of sport for social empowerment of women and girls.” Back in 1896, Susan B. Anthony, a prominent American woman who campaigned for giving women the right to vote, stated — “Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world.” Sport is known to have a profound positive impact on character-building. The same UN document I quoted earlier also states the following — “…women and girls stand to gain specific social benefits from participation in sport and physical activity. Sport provides women and girls with an alternative avenue for participation in the social and cultural life of their communities and promotes enjoyment of freedom of expression, interpersonal networks, new opportunities and increased self-esteem. It also expands opportunities for education and for the development of a range of essential life skills, including communication, leadership, teamwork and negotiation.” A study showed that 80% of the female executives at Fortune 500 companies identified themselves as having played sports. Studies have also shown that girls playing sports are likely to get better grades. The health benefits of sports obviously do not require elucidation.

So, looking at this issue practically, where is it that this discrimination actually takes place? First, of course, it is at the domestic level, but equally, if not more importantly, it is exhibited subtly, if not directly, in schools or colleges. During the course of writing the book, we conducted a small survey. We distributed questionnaires to 21 girls who were either in college or had graduated not more than two years ago. It may also be noted that the term ‘school’ here, going by the popular usage in India, refers to the educational institution one goes to prior to college, and the term ‘schooling’ too has been used only in that context.

While a few respondents expressed no issues with respect to gender bias in sports at the school or college level, most expressed resentment ranging from disappointment to anguish at the state of affairs.

Many girls pointed to the boys getting more practice time as also more attention from the coaches. In colleges with hostel facilities, some girls pointed to better infrastructure for boys, say a better gym in the boys’ hostel, boys having easier access to sports equipment and a table-tennis table being available only in the boys’ mess (and table-tennis is not even stereotyped as an only boys’ sport). Complaints to authorities too fell on deaf ears. Some pointed out that while the college authorities had no issues with girls going to represent the college in outstation non-sporting events, the authorities, for some reason, only feared for the girls’ safety when it came to sports. Many girls pointed to their male peers mocking them when they played sports, thereby discouraging them from participating.

A national level basketball player from Chandigarh claims that she was made to practise with junior boys, who were relatively incompetent, during coaching, and that boys were given better jerseys. Some schools blatantly disallowed girls from playing sports like cricket, and in fact, very few of the respondents mentioned cricket or football as a sport they play even for recreation. Some pointed to how schools disallowed girls from adventure sports and a girl from an Air Force school pointed to their institution having the National Cadet Corps (NCC) for boys only. A respondent from Anand, Gujarat, mentions that when she approached her principal for permission to play badminton at the national level, he told her that she should rather take up a course in embroidery and disallowed her, though boys were allowed to go for the same event. As regards football, she recalls remarks like “Why would girls want to get dirty on a football field for a real tournament?” and the authorities in her school didn’t even think that basketball was meant for girls, leave alone cricket or football, though after her entering college, her school now does have girls’ football and basketball teams, showing signs of improvement.

A girl from an elite school in Delhi points to the football coach giving more attention to boys and having a very discouraging attitude towards girls wanting to form their own team to represent the school, though the girls did succeed.

A few even candidly admitted that their family and community were more encouraging towards boys than girls when it came to sports.

Two of the respondents, including the girl from Anand cited earlier, had partially done their schooling in the United States and they pointed out that there was a world of a difference. In that country, girls were encouraged to play all games, including football and baseball. The reason for the same will become clearer when we examine the legal position in the United States.

So, having examined the problem, where can the solution lie? The solution will have to have both legal and policy dimensions. Surely, in a democracy, the media can’t be compelled on what to report or how much to report. Nor can the issue of men discouraging women in sports be brought under the legal purview. However, what must come within the legal purview flowing from the philosophy of Article 15 of the constitution (this article mandates the right to equality for all Indian citizens, irrespective of caste, creed, gender or place of birth to access to “places of public entertainment”, besides other things), is the equal access to sports infrastructure for men and women at all levels, even amateur ones, especially in educational institutions. Approaching the High Court or Supreme Court invoking Article 15, which falls under the Fundamental Rights chapter of the constitution (for issues relating to violations of Fundamental Rights, especially by the State, one has the right to approach the Supreme Court or High Court of the concerned state under Articles 32 and 226 of the constitution respectively), for an equally good gym or to have a table-tennis table for girls would become too much of a trifle and an alternative legal apparatus is needed.

It is precisely in this light that we can learn from the American experience. In the United States of America, a legislation called Title IX, which was introduced way back in 1972 that advocated equality of access of sports infrastructure to both boys and girls in universities. The legislation entails a lot more and there is much that is controversial about it, but we need not delve into that over here. It suffices to say that the legal system of the United States takes the extra mile to ensure gender equality in the realm of sport, and their judiciary has upheld the same in numerous judgments, interpreting not only Title IX but even earlier enactments like Title VII to this effect. More developments in the legislative sphere have taken place since then, such as the Athletics Regulation in 1975. As Justice Mukul Mudgal, a renowned Indian judge, formerly Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, and who has been a member of the Court of Arbitration for Sports and is vociferous in advocating women’s rights in the field of sports in our country, has articulated —
“In the United States, where sports enjoy a commercial status, value and market, it is significant that women’s participation grew only after a deliberate legal intervention. The Title IX to the educational amendments was enacted by the government in 1972 which states that there could be no sex discrimination in educational programmes. To provide more opportunities for women, the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare brought the Athletics Regulation in 1975 to ensure that women were not denied any opportunity that was available on the playing field. The passage of the Title IX in 1972 and the subsequent growth of girls and women sports programmes and their standard has been spectacular.

These simple enactments paved the way for hundreds of young women to gain higher education and pursue sports.”

Now, one can actually have a look at the bill and where it is actually lacking. Of course, the very initiative of coming up with a bill for sports is praiseworthy and indeed, Mr.Ajay Maken has been among the more proactive Ministers of Youth Affairs and Sports we’ve had. He has tried to solve the problem of children’s access to playgrounds, something which was a major issue in my childhood with public parks disallowing children from playing and sports complexes and officially designated playgrounds being far and few. Yet, the bill (I am referring to the draft dated 14th October 2011, which is available on the website of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports) does suffer from some major drawbacks, when it comes to the issue of gender, though it does a laudable job of addressing the issue of sexual harassment, which is indeed the gravest issue [under Section 7(2)(b), Section 13(iii) and most importantly, Section 17]. But gender issues in sport do go beyond that as well. It also does take up the issue of under-representation of women in sports federations by giving 10% reservation to women in the National Olympic Committee and National Sports Federations under Section 24(e).

The focus of the present draft of the bill only on sexual harassment, when it comes to the issue of gender, can be seen in the Preamble itself. In fact, the phrase ‘gender discrimination’ finds a mention only once in the bill in Section 7, while the phrase ‘sexual harassment’ appears 15 times in the whole bill. There is, however, an Appellate Sports Tribunal which has the jurisdiction to resolve disputes between athletes and sports federations or the National Olympic Committee, which can be issues pertaining to gender as well, under Section 25.

However, what the bill lacks is any forum for female students in educational institutions not at professional levels to address their grievances. Taking a cue from the American position, there should also be a forum, perhaps the Sports Authority of India, wherein female students can address their grievances in this respect, and the body to which the grievances are addressed should have the authority to issue directions to the concerned institution as regards gender equality in sports.

There is scope for other reforms in the bill too. While the bill does give affirmative action to women in the National Olympic Committee and National Sports Federations, I believe that affirmative action for women even in the Appellate Sports Tribunal won’t be a bad idea.
There are provisions in the National Sports Development Code, 2011, mandating the sports federations to conduct championships for both men and women (Rule 9.3) and to utilize Govt. funds given for the same equally between championships of both the genders (Rule 10.8). I see no reason why these should not find a place in the bill, giving them a permanent legal stamp. Also, the bill should stipulate that there should be no difference in the prize money based on gender.

The bill is yet to be tabled and changes can still be made before the same. If the Government does not modify the bill before it is tabled, then the Opposition can take the initiative of advocating these reforms.

Other than legal reforms, there should also be more policy initiatives. Advertisements promoting women’s sport dispelling myths about its adverse effect on reproductive health and highlighting how sport as a means of recreation and exercise cuts across gender should be issued in public interest by the government on radio and television. All the different education boards in the country can, as a deliberate initiative, introduce chapters in school textbooks on Indian female sportspersons and adventure legends like Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to climb Mt. Everest, showing that women are also capable of having exemplary physical endurance (though in many cases, these indeed do exist). Telefilms can be aired on DD advancing this cause. A documentary series on the history of women in sport has been telecast in Hungary. The Press Council of India can also issue directives of a persuasive (not binding) nature appealing to the media to give better coverage of women’s sports, particularly team sports. A scholarship of Rs. 18000 per annum, i.e. amounting to 1500 a month, has been introduced for winners of women’s versions of national championships and that should be increased if possible. Also, more and more NGOs should take up sport for the girl child as a means of empowering women, which has indeed been the case abroad but to a very small extent in our country.