Addressing Gender-based Violence in and through Sport

Kirsty Burrows, for SportWorks

A 2018 report from the World Health Organisation highlighted that globally, 1 in 3 women are subjected to physical or sexual violence at some point during their lifetime. (1)

These figures, which do not include sexual harassment, led the WHO Director General to comment that “Violence against women is endemic in every country and culture”, noting that this has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. (2)

Considering the pervasiveness of abuse within society, and how organised sport – which does not exist within a vacuum but is a feature of the global economy (3) – cannot be immune from wider societal issues, it is imperative to recognise that gender-based violence (GBV) happens in sport just as in society. 

Gender-based violence is a term defined as “violence directed against a person because of that person’s gender (including gender identity/expression) or violence that affects persons of a particular gender disproportionately” (4)

And indeed, a key issue to addressing GBV in sport is that just as in wider society, there is clear evidence of a general underreporting of cases, meaning the precise magnitude of the issue is unknown.

We do know however, that whilst there is no conclusive evidence that demonstrates GBV occurs more often in sport than elsewhere, research does indicate that it is pervasive, and there are factors within sport which can increase the risk – including unbalanced gender ratios, the hierarchical nature of sport, institutional scandal avoidance, lack of protection policies,  a lack of monitoring and evaluation of measures which are in place, and barriers to accessing effective, timely and appropriate remedy and support.(5)

When we talk about GBV in sport it is important to recognise that there are several forms: verbal, non-verbal, physical, sexual harassment and abuse, and neglect, with the different forms not being mutually exclusive but often overlapping. (5)

All forms of GBV can have severe and long-lasting impacts, affecting physical, social and psychological health. They can include performance impairment, an increased willingness to cheat, lead to athlete drop-out or result in a variety of presentations including psychosomatic illnesses, disordered eating, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, self-harm and even suicide. (5, 6)

These impacts are not only felt by the individual. Research has shown the ramifications can be felt across the sporting community, leading to conclusions that all forms of abuse in sport represent a community trauma, which must be addressed at an organisation wide level. (7)

Recent years have seen a welcomed increase in research and awareness around the issue of GBV in sport leading to the development of guidance and recommendations for sports organisations.(8, 9, 10) This highlights the important responsibility that sports organisations have not only to develop and implement survivor-centred, trauma-informed policies aimed at the prevention of and response to harassment and abuse within sport – including targeted interventions for more vulnerable groups such as women, children, LGBTQI+ athletes and athletes with disabilities(5) – but also brings focus to the important role that sport can play in being a vehicle for driving wider social agendas.

In Zambia, for example, the STOP GBV campaign implemented by Sport in Action, is an initiative to tackle wider societal issues and integrate sport and anti-GBV education. (11)

Another programme aimed at fostering safe and inclusive access to sport is the #HERGAMETOO campaign – a recently launched initiative in the UK focused on tackling sexism in women’s football. This programme looks to support both players and fans, online or in person, “…to foster a positive and inclusive environment in football”. Numerous clubs around the UK are now supporting this movement. (12)

Sport has the power to shift the way ‘communities and cultures see women and girls’, and more importantly, how ‘women and girls see themselves’ within their communities. (13)

Today, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, it is important to recognise the role sport can play in fostering a safer, more inclusive society for women and girls.

This, however, can only be achieved when participation in sport represents a physical and psychological safe space – centralising the rights and welfare of participants across all levels.

By taking a holistic, rights-based approach to fostering sporting cultures which protects and promotes the physical and psychological well-being of all participants and improves access and opportunity for women and girls across the entire ecosystem, we can influence social and cultural change and help to protect not only those participating in sport, but the values of sport itself.


Author: Kirsty Burrows

Acknowledgements: Tessa Jansen and Carrie Raukar-Herman – Sports Rights Solutions 


  1. World Health Organization (2021). Violence against women prevalence estimates, 2018. [pdf] Geneva: World Health Organization. Available at: https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240022256
  2. who.int, (2021). Devastatingly pervasive: 1 in 3 women globally experience violence. [online] Available at: https://www.who.int/news/item/09-03-2021-devastatingly-pervasive-1-in-3-women-globally-experience-violence
  3. Maguire, J. (2008). Sport and Globalisation. Sportanddev.org, [pdf] Available at: https://www.sportanddev.org/sites/default/files/downloads/81__sport_and_globalisation.pdf
  4. Mergaert, L., Arnaut, C., Vertommen, T., and Lang, M. (2016). Study on Gender-based Violence in Sport – Final Report. [pdf] Brussels: European Commission, Directorate-General for Education and Culture. Available at: https://sport.ec.europa.eu/sites/default/files/gender-based-violence-sport-study-2016_en.pdf
  5. Mountjoy, M., Brackenridge, C., Arrington, M., Blauwet, C., Carska-Sheppard, A., Fasting, K., Kirby, S., Leahy, T., Marks, S., Martin, K., Starr, K., Tiivas, A. and Budgett, R. (2016). International Olympic Committee consensus statement: harassment and abuse (non-accidental violence) in sport. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50(17), pp.1019-1029. Available at: https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/50/17/1019
  6. Parent, S., Vaillancourt-Morel, M. and Gillard, A., (2021). Interpersonal Violence (IV) in Sport and Mental Health Outcomes in Teenagers. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, [online]p.019372352110436. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/01937235211043652?journalCode=jssa
  7. Tuakli-Wosornu, Y., Amick, M., Guiora, A., and Lowe, S. (2021).  Athlete abuse hurts everyone: vicarious and secondary traumatic stress in sport.  British Journal of Sports Medicine, [online] pp. bjsports-2021-104715. Available at: https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2021/10/04/bjsports-2021-104715
  8. Roberts, V., Sojo, V. and Grant, F. (2019) Organisational factors and non-accidental violence in sport: A systematic review. Sport Management Review, [online] 23(1), pp.8-27. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1016/j.smr.2019.03.001
  9. McMahon, J. and McGannon, K. (2021). ‘I hurt myself because it sometimes helps’: former athletes’ embodied emotion responses to abuse using self-injury. Sport, Education and Society, [online] 26(2), pp. 161-174. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13573322.2019.1702940
  10. Fisher, L. (2020). Using the Larry Nassar Case to Create a Coach Education Module to Prompt Social Change. Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal, [online] 28(1), pp.90-98. Available at: https://journals.humankinetics.com/configurable/content/journals$002fwspaj$002f28$002f1$002farticle-p90.xml?t:ac=journals%24002fwspaj%24002f28%24002f1%24002farticle-p90.xml
  11. sport-in-action.com, (2018). Gender Based Violence Survivor Support Project. [online] Available at: https://www.sport-in-action.com/what-we-do/past-projects/#gbvss
  12. hergametoo.co.uk, (2021). #HERGAMETOO – Fighting against sexism in football. [online] Available at: https://www.hergametoo.co.uk/
  13. vic.gov.au, (2021). Gender equality in health and wellbeing – All Victorians are affected by gendered health inequalities. [online] Available at: https://www.vic.gov.au/gender-equality-health-and-wellbeing
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