A chance to be 'voice for the voiceless'
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls it "transformative change." And those devoting the next four weeks of their lives in hopes of that change have already begun the journey.
Grace Kiraguri, 38, launched her own sports marketing company in Kenya, the only female-run firm of its kind in the nation, after Googling successful marketing firms in the United States.
Aparna Popat, 34, once the 16th-ranked badminton player in the world and an Olympian who represented India in the Sydney and Athens Games, would like to bring sport to the slums of Mumbai as part of her role as a manager at Indian Oil, one of the country's largest corporate sponsors of sports activities.
Adriana Correa, 34, is in charge of designing and developing sports community programs in 77 border regions of Colombia, an area where extreme poverty, a lack of educational opportunities and teenage pregnancy are just some of the obstacles she confronts.
Tilabilenji Mvunga, 32, works for a non-government organization in Zambia that uses sport as a tool to educate citizens living with HIV and wants only to increase her ability to integrate life skills through sport.
Though just 25, Aziza Kayumova is already recognized by the Tajikistan Embassy as one of the most respected coaches in the nation with her own federation for sport and dance, but would like to ease the suffering and discrimination of women and girls in her country through education and help in finding employment.
"These are emerging leaders who have already stepped up to the plate and faced challenges in their countries," said Ann Stock, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. "They have the drive and commitment. They've shown that. But they need that next step to help them solidify their thought and action."
To that end, as the cornerstone of Clinton's three pillars of empowering women through sports, the State Department and espnW have teamed to create the Global Women's Sports Mentoring Program, in which promising international leaders like Kiraguri, Popat and 15 others like them will be paired for the next four weeks with leading American women in sports-related fields in the hopes of building sustainable partnerships and support networks, and assembling a specific action plan to promote women and girls worldwide.
From physical education teachers to journalists to managers of corporations with a sports-related focus, the program kicked off this week in Washington after an extensive selection and matching process.
"We wanted to move beyond what was on paper about these women to what's in their heart and their personality in order to make sustainable programs," said Sarah Hillyer, director of the Center for Sport, Peace and Society at the University of Tennessee, who, with the help of fellow professor Ashleigh Huffman, spearheaded the selection and matching of the women with their American mentors.
"At some point in the process, they all voiced this commitment that 'I am an ambassador for my country's women and when I go back, I will have so much to share to make them stronger and better.' Many used the phrase, 'This gives me an opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless.'"
For Clinton, the advantages have always been obvious. A product of pre-Title IX America, the secretary of state nonetheless had enough access to sports growing up in Park Ridge, Ill., that she was able to experience the benefits of teamwork, goal-setting and improved self-esteem. Research conducted by the United Nations has shown that girls worldwide who attend just one year of elementary school raise their earning power by 15 percent. Those who play sports are more likely to complete their education and earn more throughout their lives.
"Secretary Clinton's point of view comes from a long-recognized success of mentoring," Stock said. "She herself has mentored young women and believes there is so much power in it, that it's something that keeps giving and giving as those women pay it forward. ... I can hear her words in my head, that empowering girls and women is not only the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do. When you can fully participate in the workplace, it creates stronger, more stable communities."
The stories are as jolting as they are inspiring.
Kiraguri and her six sisters were looked at oddly in their community, and their father was viewed as un-African for having his daughters continue their education beyond elementary school, when girls typically leave school to attend to family responsibilities.
Kiraguri eventually earned an MBA from the University of Nairobi. Odd jobs followed, but it was not until the small company she worked for asked her to do the marketing for Kenya's first international sporting event that she considered making a career of it.
By Googling the names of sports marketing companies, she also found a business plan, and she is now known in Kenya as the face and voice of women entrepreneurs, with a large contract recently signed with Coca-Cola.
"They're the type of stories you hear again and again, of women who took the initiative," Stock said. "[Kiraguri] started something, but she knew she needed more than she had and is taking the next step."
Nneka Ikem, 45, worked her way up from transcribing interviews for Radio Nigeria, a job given to her by her dad to keep her out of trouble, she said, to supervising the coverage of all sports activities in the Lagos area for the news and programs departments.
At ESPN, she will be taught how to generate revenue for her sports broadcasting company and help educate young girls in her community to become sports journalists.
"I also hope to set up a voluntary group of women who will assist in sensitizing parents on the need to allow their girl children to engage in sports instead of marrying them off at a very early age due to poverty," Ikem said in an email interview. "I will like to start from primary/elementary schools, because that is where to catch them young.
"I will try to ensure that most of the schools that I am able to visit have at least one sports facility through the parents/teachers associations. Most primary schools in Nigeria can't even boast a green field, let alone a basketball court or a running track."
For Ikem and the others, the advantages are literally right in front of them.
"When you have trained a girl," she wrote, "you will have trained a nation. When a girl succeeds in a community, all her family members and beyond become beneficiaries of her success."