In a culture with deep-rooted norms for men and women, it is rare to see Burmese girls playing sports; they are generally expected to perform household chores and stay indoors to care for the family. Yet, an organization that began with a small idea 10 years ago is transforming deeply held beliefs of gender roles within the Burmese migrant community living in Thailand.
“It is part of our Burmese tradition for girls to stay at home; outdoor activities are usually performed by men,” says James, a soccer coach of Chin heritage at PlayOnside, a non-governmental organization on the Thai border town of Mae Sot near Myanmar. “We are changing that.”
During Myanmar’s long civil war, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced, many of whom have sought sanctuary in Thailand. It is estimated that around 90,000 refugees live in the nine camps along the Thai-Myanmar border. Furthermore, about 200,000 Burmese migrants live in Mae Sot, a town on the Thai-Myanmar border. Since its formation, PlayOnside has been playing an important role in implementing positive grassroots projects for the most vulnerable and marginalized migrants and refugees living on the Thai-Myanmar border, particularly girls and young women.
PlayOnside was founded in 2013 by its current director, Javier Almagro, who made a trip to the border region from Spain more than a decade ago, during which time he saw a need for Burmese migrant children to receive equal opportunity in sports. Almagro did not first think to start an NGO but together with his friend Daen organized a tournament (The Amore Cup) to link the Thai and migrant Burmese communities. During the games, it was observed that Thai boys and girls had more experience than the Burmese children, who had no access to proper soccer equipment or places to play.
“From the results, my Karen friend Daen and I decided to continue with some training and after a couple of months, we started thinking of making the idea more structured,” says Almagro, referring to the dominant ethnic group in Karen State in southern Myanmar, which has faced discrimination for decades. PlayOnside was formed on the belief that soccer can be a powerful tool to educate and empower displaced Burmese and Karen migrants and refugees living in Thailand and has a tremendous potential to promote social change by bringing playful learning activities to migrant children, particularly girls, living along the Thai-Burma border. Over time, when the organization won the support of donors and the wider Burmese migrant community, it grew rapidly, and now allows Burmese girls from Mae Sot to participate in tournaments in Bangkok and other cities.
“The organization’s unique mission on the border allowed it to grow organically as we received more recognition for our efforts to provide a fun and educational opportunity to Burmese migrant children,” says Almagro. “In the beginning, the participation of girls was low. Yet, through awareness generation initiatives, the organization has built close ties with the local Burmese communities over the last decade to promote social inclusion and empowerment, with increased participation of Burmese migrant girls. It is one of our successes that I am most proud of.”
According to a report by the Women’s Sports Foundation, sports has been one of the most important socio-cultural learning experiences for boys and men for many years, with many benefits including improved grades in school, higher levels of confidence and self-esteem, and more positive body image. The study goes on to say that women who do not engage in sports at a young age are disadvantaged in the work setting as they do not experience these benefits, and are more likely to be vulnerable to a variety of diseases such as breast cancer. As women and girls in many societies are discouraged from pursuing sports activities, they are missing out on an important medium of learning with immense physical, educational, and psychological benefits.
With this in mind, PlayOnside promotes gender equality through a variety of tailored programs. Through its female soccer program, PlayOnside identified many social issues in the Burmese migrant community on the Thai border, such as gender-based violence and early marriage and pregnancy. A Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) program was initiated in 2020 to reduce the identified issues and equip migrants, particularly girls, with the necessary skills and knowledge to combat gender inequalities.
Based on the principle that providing SRHR information will improve the sexual health of migrants, promote their dignity and empower them to treat each other with respect and dignity, PlayOnside provides an essential opportunity for Burmese migrant girls to make informed decisions about their relationships and sexuality, and avoid both early and unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.
“The SRHR program builds awareness for Burmese children on bodily autonomy and builds the confidence of girls as it is combined with playing sports,” says Hnin Hay, a female soccer coach at PlayOnside. The initiative to promote gender equality did not come with its difficulties. “Parents were concerned about girls’ participation and it is not always easy to convince them of the benefits of playing sports for girls. But then they see the benefits with their own eyes and encourage their girls,” Hnin says.
“PlayOnside’s girls are real heroines,” Almagro adds. “They are proactive on the field and are breaking stereotypes. We give them space to grow instead of imposing the women’s empowerment rhetoric so that they hold the reins. We are also increasingly hiring female coaches to set examples for the Burmese girls, as it has a big impact on their confidence and opening of their social circles.”
Participation in sports provides different forms of opportunities and capital for all, particularly those girls who have been displaced, who are caught in challenging situations, or are dealing with homesickness, culture shock, lack of social activities, unemployment, racism and discrimination. A 2016 study noted that “the social benefit of participation in sports [include] physical benefits, a social network and sometimes a form of income. Participation in sports can be a rewarding experience, particularly for young [women] in overcoming settlement challenges.”
At the end of each weekend at PlayOnside, before the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, around 1,000 migrant children and young people from 27 different migrant schools, including a significant number of girls, gather to play, learn, and compete while making new friends, team building and expanding their networks.
“We teach teamwork and coaches provide training to Burmese migrant girls; they develop lasting friendships and relationships through working together and collaboration,” says James.
COVID-19 closed the school for two years, which posed new challenges. During the pandemic, the organization created an emotional resilience program that was sustained by providing leadership opportunities for Burmese migrant girls and boys. PlayOnside’s approach is based on providing learner-centered training combined with hands-on, face-to-face competence development, and peer discussion where migrant girls and boys are encouraged to participate regardless of their backgrounds.
PlayOnside has received several accolades, including being nominated as one of the three finalists for the FIFA Diversity Award in 2019 for its work with migrant populations.