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Brady: Olympics remind us that sports can empower women in developing countries

Saudi Arabia's Sarah Attar competes in a women's

Saudi Arabia's Sarah Attar competes in a women's 800-meter heat during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics, London. (Aug. 8, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

The 2012 London Olympics will be remembered for many things: the queen's unprecedented appearance at the opening ceremony, the Olympic torch handed over to the next generation of young athletes, the inspired, record-breaking performances of many, and . . . women. For the first time in Olympic history, the United States sent more female athletes than males to the games. So did Russia, Canada and China.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei sent female athletes for the first time. The addition of women's boxing meant women were competing in all 26 events, another first.

According to the International Olympic Committee's television and marketing department, the dominance of female athletes has sparked a surge in viewership of the games among American girls -- evidence that women's success is already inspiring the next generation. The IOC reported that ratings have been 89 percent higher among 12- to 17-year-old girls than for the hit teen drama "Glee," the highest-rated network show in that demographic. One can only hope that 12-year-old girls around the globe are also able to watch their countrywomen (and men) compete in the international arena.

From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, more girls and women are participating in sports than ever before. Even in the most unlikely settings, girls are stepping onto fields, joining teams and participating in ways that were unprecedented a decade ago.

In recent years, sports have begun to appear on the agenda of many countries and international bodies, as nations have signed on to conventions and frameworks affirming women's and girls' rights (including to sports and physical education). In some countries, laws requiring equal access to sports for girls and women are in place. An increasing array of actors -- public and private sector entities, corporations, community groups, nongovernmental organizations, federations, and athletes -- are promoting girls sports.

Despite these positive developments, the implementation of solid and vibrant sports programs remains a challenge, particularly in developing countries.

It's well known that sports participation benefits physical and mental health. Sports and play also build children's self-confidence, and can reduce post-traumatic stress. And sports programs can be used as venues for delivering information about health, including on avoiding HIV and unintended pregnancy. There's growing evidence that strengthening the ability of children to play enhances their healthy development and builds stronger communities. But if these benefits are to be realized in the developing world, more focused attention on girls' programs is needed.

The emergence of new sports opportunities for girls in the developing world represents a mold-breaking departure from traditional definitions of femininity. Beyond the clear physical and health benefits of sports, participation provides girls with the opportunity to develop new skills, to learn and lead, and to expand and deepen their network of friends. Well-designed and carefully implemented programs for girls can challenge traditional roles for them and break down gender stereotypes; increase girls' visible, active presence in the public sphere; and transform the ways girls think about themselves, and the ways their families and communities view them.

As the momentum around sports for girls and women grows, we must strengthen existing programs, experiment with new ones, and -- important for future advocacy -- document the effects of girls' participation on their health, lives and communities.

As the Olympics demonstrate, there's global interest in women's athletics. This interest can drive the emergence of new programs for girls and women, to their great benefit. How this globalization shapes the way that girls and women perceive, experience and practice sports -- particularly in the developing world -- will be exciting to watch. As the number of girls programs increases over the next decade, we'll see the power of sports to transform girls' and women's lives. With more than 600 million girls in the developing world, the possibilities are endless.

Let the games continue!

Martha Brady is a research and senior associate at the Population Council, an international nonprofit research organization. Brady's work at the Council includes collaborating with women's groups, international development agencies and other organizations to evaluate and shape policies to improve the lives of adolescent girls.