When Tracy Evans visited Rwanda in 2008, a young boy came up to her and said something that changed the three-time Olympic aerial skier’s outlook. With a radiant smile and chewing on a small piece of sugarcane, he told her, “I see girls can play.”
That simple statement meant to Evans that, in just two weeks of work for Kids Play International (KPI)—the non-profit she founded earlier the same year—she had actually helped overcome gender stereotypes in some small way. The result was that young boys, like the one who stood before her, had begun to recognize that girls can play sports, too.
Working to establish gender equality through sports is exactly what KPI aims to do. The organization’s mission is to use the Olympic values of fair play, mutual respect and solidarity to help promote gender equity through sports in countries that have been impacted by genocide like Rwanda and Cambodia.
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“Sport truly does provide a unique environment where ideas of masculinity and femininity can be renegotiated and harmful gender norms can be challenged so that girls are afforded the same opportunities to reach their full potential as boys,” Evans, a 10-year member of the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team, told Excelle Sports.
Today, Evan’s KPI offers a number of volunteer trips to Rwanda and Cambodia—and through her connections in sport, the trips are often led by Olympic or professional athletes. During these excursions, volunteers and athletes work together to teach young girls and boys in the community a variety of sports and physical activities like softball, soccer, running, dance and even yoga. Using these activities, the program hopes to instill a sense of respect, perseverance and teamwork between boys and girls that is often missing in countries with deep histories of genocide and political and social unrest.
Inspired by her mother, who often goes on medical volunteer trips, Evans decided to start KPI after her own volunteer trip to Malawi, Africa in 2008.
“I went on that trip with no expectations but was overwhelmed by the vast disparity I saw between boys and girls in their day to day lives,” Evans said. “During the trip, when we played a sport the kids were familiar with like soccer, it was easy to see there were clear gender norms between the boys and girls—the boys dominated the field while the girls stood around like orange cones. But when we played softball, a sport they had never played, the whole dynamic changed. It was an even playing field where boys and girls were learning side-by-side with no preconceived ideas of who should be the better, stronger or faster one.”
After eight years, Evans believes KPI has made inroads toward establishing gender equality in Rwanda and Cambodia. For proof, she points to a recent trip to Rwanda, during which a 9-year-old girl named Honorine told Evans that she wants “to learn everything I can about gender equity and teach it to everyone in the community.”
While her organization has been successful, Evans acknowledges that gender equality is not something that happens overnight, whether in Rwanda, Cambodia or even the U.S. “It takes time and patience to see transformation in how people’s beliefs and behaviors shift over time and to see how they gain confidence to challenge the harmful gender, social and cultural norms that exist in their communities,” she said.
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While it may take time for change, it hasn’t taken others long to recognize Evan’s work. In 2011, she was given the Female Athlete Philanthropist of the Year award from the United Athlete’s Foundation (UAF). For more information on Kids Play International, visit its site here.
Excelle Sports lifestyle editor Kim Vandenberg is an Olympic bronze medalist, Pan American gold medalist, World Championship silver medalist and three-time U.S. national champion and French national champion in swimming. She’s also a member of Excelle’s Athletes Council.