Ten years after Tracy Evans-Land founded Kids Play International (KPI) in Gatagara, Rwanda, in 2008, she rolled out the second iteration of her programme in the rural villages of Anhchanh and Srah Srang outside of Siem Reap town centre, Cambodia.

KPI promotes gender equity through sport and Olympic values in genocide-affected countries by providing a unique Let’s Play Fair (LPF) programme that is mixed gender, multi-sport, and is designed to work within a single community over an extended period of time.

“We promote gender equity through sports by training local Khmer teachers to be gender equity coaches while simultaneously providing them with techniques to create gender-equitable classrooms,” says Katey Lippitt, KPI’s Cambodia programme manager.

“We’ve been working with three partner schools in the rural communities of Anhchanh and Srah Srang near the Angkor Wat area since November 2018.

“We have done American football, rugby, judo, baseball, etc. We also have done well-known sports such as soccer, volleyball and athletics [track and field],” she says.

Since the ancient city of Siem Reap depends heavily on tourism, many families who participate at the NGO have lost their jobs because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Domestic violence has increased and KPI wanted to supply basic necessities to show its support to families during this time.

“We were able to collaborate with the Spitler School Foundation and provide $9,000 worth of food supplies to our students’ families. Each family has received $25 worth of food supplies,” Lippitt says.

"Now, we are continuing an incentive program handing out rice at the end of each month to our students that have been attending out Covid-19 Sport Education Sessions."

Lippitt says sports can be a foundation for building gender equality. Photo supplied

Evans-Land first visited Anhchanh village, where the Spitler school is located, in 2012 as she came with her mother who was a volunteer registered nurse.

Over the next six years, she continued to build KPI’s relationship with the Spitler School Foundation and returned to Anhchanh with volunteer groups, including Olympic athletes, to share the power of gender equity through sports.

The three-time Olympian says: “I didn’t really understand the true power of sport until I went to Rwanda, Africa, on a volunteer trip and saw just how organically and quickly introducing new sports can break down harmful gender, social and cultural norms between girls and boys and provide a more level playing field to learn life skills together.”

During a two-week volunteer trip to Rwanda in 2008, the former Olympic freestyle skier says she found out that females were treated differently from males since they could not have access to education, take part in society equally or join sport activities.

This ignited her passion and she has since devoted her time, funds and network resources to developing an innovative sport-based solution to improve gender equity in rural communities affected by genocide.

In 2018, KPI was awarded a grant through the US Department of State’s Sports Diplomacy Division to train a group of local coaches and launch the LPF programme.

Youths from various socio-economic backgrounds aged between seven and 18 years old who participate in LPF are provided with the opportunity through a variety of sports to intensify supportive peer networks and to engage in more frequent and meaningful contact with peers of both genders, ultimately breaking down gender norms and misperceptions about women’s capabilities in their community and beyond.

Panha, 15, who only gave his first name, says: “I now believe that men should always give value to women. KPI has inspired me to help do more housework with my family and has given me supportive friends whenever I have issues. If we as sons discriminate against women then we lose our manhood because men and women should have equal rights no matter what.”

Chamrouen, 17, agreed. “When I started participating in KPI, I didn’t think that a female coach could teach me sport skills nor did I want to play sports with girls, but I found out quickly I was wrong!” he says.

Lippit, who is responsible for developing and facilitating KPI’s gender equity and sport curriculum, says: “We focus on gender equity because a typical girl in Cambodia and Rwanda is far less likely than her male counterpart to finish school, gain meaningful employment, and occupy leadership positions in her community.”

KPI offers a range of sports, including judo, boxing and rugby. Photo supplied

Growing up in the US as a female athlete, where gender equity and opportunity for women is high, Lippitt has fallen in love with Cambodian culture and she is happy to be part of an organisation that is empowering local Cambodian people to invest in reshaping the future for the country’s youth.

She says that while KPI has only been in Cambodia since October 2018, there has already been a noticeable change. Players went from only wanting to have same-gender partners to choosing mixed-gender partners during activities.

“We’ve seen our boys take on supportive roles by championing our girls to take on leadership opportunities. Many of our girls facilitate stations at our community events or school workshops to show their contributions in the community and their leadership capabilities.

“Our coaches have also taken on the responsibility of being caring adult role models not only in our programme but in their classrooms and community.”

The programme manager explained that sport has the powerful ability to reduce restrictions in society and provides a unique environment where harmful gender norms can be reconsidered.

She says significant research shows that sport development programmes like KPI are effective in empowering girls and developing supportive young boys.

“At our programme, many of our girls’ favourite sports are ones that both boys and girls have never played before KPI came to their community. That is because there is no preconceived idea that ‘Boys are better than girls’ but rather an opportunity for them to learn and grow together.”

The current 14 local Cambodian coaches, who are also teachers, receive weekly training and are in charge of a team of 12 players.

Lippitt says KPI has taken steps to train and promote female coaches to leadership roles like lead/master coach, master facilitator and programme assistants in Cambodia and Rwanda so that boys and girls in the programme see females as capable and empowered leaders.

Aside from the sport-based LPF programme, KPI’s All Girls United (AGU) programme meets once a month, for girls to talk about stigmatised issues such as gender-based violence or menstrual hygiene management (MHM) in a safe space.

Lippitt, who has been with KPI for nearly two years, says: “Girls aged 13-18 participate and receive annually reusable menstrual pads through our partnership with Project G, a social enterprise that educates on MHM and health education.”

Ah Kourem, a 16-year-old KPI-Cambodia AGU player, says: “The AGU programme has made me brave. I speak my mind more often and feel more confident to express my thoughts and feelings so that I am heard.”

Since many people have lost their jobs and have no income to support their families who live near the Angkor Wat area in the Srah Srang and Anhchanh villages where they depend heavily on tourism, KPI supplied 95 families with food over the last three months.

KPI pays attention not only to individuals to promote gender equity and families amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but it also supports the community.

“We will tailor our curriculum to address these issues and host parent education sessions, which educate on positive parenting and eliminating violence in the household,” says Lippitt.

“Additionally, we have been connecting with other local organisations that work with vulnerable populations in addressing these issues.”

For more information, visit its website: http://kidsplayintl.org/lets-play-fair-cambodia/ or email: [email protected].