International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women around the world, and to reflect on the state of equality between genders while looking forward to the future and the work still to be done.
International Women’s Day has been observed since the early 1900s, though no particular organisation is solely responsible for the movement – it is women and men around the world that have embraced the meaning behind IWD, understood its importance and propelled it to become the significant date it now represents in the calendar.
“This day is a reminder of the fight for women’s rights, but more widely for human rights. As long as the fight is on we have to celebrate this day, to see how far things have come and how much there is still to do,” say referees Charlotte and Julie Bonaventura, who recently became the first women’s referee couple nominated for an IHF Men’s World Championship when they whistled at France 2017 in January.
“In the past decades women have been fighting to gain equal civil rights, to be allowed to vote, to work, to drive a car, to wear the clothes they want, etcetera. All these things are completely common in most of modern countries but there are still countries in the world where women are not allowed to do so, where their bodies belong to their husbands, where young girls don't go to school. Even in so-called ‘modern societies’ some people have narrow-minded ideas about women, there is still an important discrimination, salaries are not equal, etcetera, which proves that this Women’s Day is not useless.”
Former EHF Champions League and national team coach for Slovenia, now assistant professor at the University of Ljubljana where she is a member of the Women’s Handball Board, Dr Marta Bon, agrees with the importance of celebrating the achievements of women but says the best way forward is for both genders to work in equal cooperation.
“In general, I'm in favour of Women's Day, if it means that it can continue to become women’s hour, minute, second...,” says Bon, who has received the prestigious Bloudek Award for her contribution to the development of sport in Slovenia. “I believe that both genders are most efficient, successful, even happy when they are working together. And I always say, ‘Men are different, women too, and thank God!’ For sure there are enough possibilities for all of us to develop our sport, and why not cooperate and work together.”
“There is a will for developing women handball”
The development in women’s handball is clear, but for those working hard every day toward parity between genders, there is still some way to go.
“Things are improving. We can see that there are more female coaches, delegates and referees than in the past. Women competition's marketing, media coverage and branding is much better now,” say Julie and Charlotte Bonaventura. “There is of course still a lot to do, but at least we can feel there is a will for developing women handball.”
“The current status is not bad, but there are really many possibilities to improve as well. I mean that we women have to take care about our positions first on ‘our shoulders’,” says Bon. “I think we have to take responsibility for our role in sport and in life in general. In the future, I would like to see many satisfied, happy players on the playing courts all over the world. And at the same time many fair, successful officials and responsible people in leading positions in handball – both sexes equally.”
From an IHF standpoint, there has been a key focus on the development of women’s handball over recent years in particular, beginning with the first ever conference and a subsequent working group formed after a conference on the fringe of the 24th IHF Men’s World Championship.
Gaining health, discipline, responsibility and social interaction
But why is the fight for equality, and in a handball context to develop the female side of the sport, so important? In large part because of the young women and girls of the future, for whom involvement in a sport can represent so much more than one might assume.
“I think it is good for every little girl to play some sport because, first of all, it is important for the health. Afterwards, you become a little bit more disciplined, responsible and also, you become more sociable because you are living in an environment in which you are surrounded by people all the time,” says 2010 and 2015 IHF World Handball Player of the Year Cristina Neagu.
The Women’s Sports Foundation has found that one of the key reasons for the sharp drop in participation once girls reach adolescence – particularly in comparison with boys of the same age – is a lack of positive role models. For this reason, it is crucial that handball continues to provide those role models, and athletes such as Neagu are aware of their responsibility when it comes to who is watching.
“I think it is important to be a role model for young boys and girls. In some way, this makes me more responsible regarding my behaviour – not only on the court but also off the court. On the other side, I think it is good for young boys and girls to have role models because more and more of them will start to play some sport because they are watching others, they are watching players like me and many others, and they want to become like us.”
From role models girls, young women and naturally young boys, can not only learn that it is socially acceptable for them to pursue athletic endeavours, but it can equip them with valuable skills and confidence that will prove an asset throughout their lives. The importance of allowing these role models the capacity to provide a living example of what can be achieved through hard work, dedication and discipline cannot be underestimated.
It is for this reason that women’s handball must be pushed forward into the future – and it must be pushed by all involved.