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Sport and Play Engender Awareness and Understanding

When children play, the world wins. That’s the idea behind the Right to Play organization, which uses sports and physical activity to teach kids about HIV/AIDS, gender equality and tolerance. The program was highlighted at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto. VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua was in attendance.

Right to Play fights HIV/AIDS through its Live Safe, Play Safe program.

Dr. Bruce Kidd is a former Canadian Olympian athlete and a member of Canada’s Olympic Committee.

“We’re all part of a growing international movement of NGOs, governments, universities and sports federations from both the first and developing world to marshal the power and fascination of sport to advance peace, reconciliation, humanitarian assistance and particularly broad social development.”

Right to Play has programs in 23 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East and focuses on children who are refugees, displaced or poor.

Dr. Kidd says sports are a natural way to help educate children.

“It is the most accessible, the most visible cultural form in many of these societies. You only have to drive through rural Africa and Asia and see the number of children playing soccer, or cricket or other games, indigenous games, to see the extent to which children are drawn to sport and physical activity.”

He says teenage girls involved in high school sports are significantly less likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases, have unwanted pregnancies or be victims of sexual attacks.

Joining the Right to Play effort is Joey Cheek, gold and silver medal winner in speedskating at the Torino winter Olympics. He says athletes can become spoiled and selfish due to all the media attention they get. But he keeps things in perspective.

“What do I do? I skate in circles. I mean that’s it, really. I mean I’m pretty fast at it, but that’s all I do is I skate in circles. And ultimately in the grand scheme of things, what a ridiculous way to spend your life. [You] Don’t hear many athletes saying that because I don’t think most of us take the time. We are so often puffed up by the media and by the people telling us how great we are that we forget what we do is hit balls with sticks or we throw balls in nets and we skate fast in circles.”

He says traveling to Africa for the first time was an eye opening experience.

“They gave me the opportunity to travel to Zambia. So a few months ago, I get to take my first trip to Africa. I’ve been to Europe and I’ve been to Asia many times for competition. But this is my first time landing in Africa and setting foot on this continent’s soil that I’d only read about or at best seen a few TV commercials with really kind of pathetic imagery. You see kids with distended bellies and flies on their heads. And for me honestly, as much as I tried to be open minded, I didn’t know what else to expect and that’s a shame. When I landed in Zambia and I got off the plane and I began to see some of these programs, what I saw was, which was so eye opening, and it really shouldn’t have been but was, was children playing.”

Cheek says messages about HIV/AIDS and gender equality can be difficult to get a across, but says sports and play make it much easier.

At some of the refugee camps it was difficult at first to start sports programs for girls. Many said that a girl’s or woman’s place was in the home not on the playing field. That began to change over time, as more adults came to watch them play and applaud.

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