The power of sport and play can transform children’s lives. Throughout the world, children and young people are naturally drawn to sport and play, which are a wonderful and vital part of childhood.
They keep children safe, healthy and happy, including in humanitarian emergencies, where they help address trauma and restore a sense of normalcy. They are a fun way to learn values and lessons that will last a lifetime – lessons about teamwork, friendship and fair play. And they offer opportunities, for instance, for girls to challenge stereotypes and change attitudes.
‘Involved in play’
UNICEF believes that engaging with the world of sport on behalf of children is especially effective. One – because it meets children where they naturally are – or should be – involved in play. Two – because we believe in the power of sport to mobilize children and their communities. And three – because sport provides a unique opportunity to forge strong partnerships.
The benefits of sport are more than just physical. Sport is an effective tool to help achieve goals in health, education and child protection. This is the concept behind Sport for Development – that sport is not just an end in itself, but is also an effective tool to help improve the lives of the most disadvantaged children – and to achieve the MDGs. In Bangladesh, a flood-prone nation, UNICEF has helped save lives by teaching 150,000 children survival swimming.
At the most fundamental level, sport and play are a child’s right, as noted in Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Safe and inclusive sport
But there is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that the context of sport and play can also lead to the exploitation of children. That is clearly unacceptable.
To combat abuse, some countries have put ‘child protection in sport’ policies in place, including training for teachers and coaches, to be sure they are aware of child rights and protection. Hotlines have been set up so that children who have been exploited or abused in sport can report the abuse.
But more needs to be done.
All nations must strengthen child safety and violence prevention measures within sport. And children must be confident that their passion for sport and play does not leave them vulnerable to exploitation and harm.
Harnessing the power of football – for children
Right now, UNICEF is harnessing the power, energy and excitement of one of the greatest sporting events in the world – the 2014 football World Cup – for children.
One example is Vamos Jogar. Vamos Jogar is a dynamic initiative that UNICEF launched recently in Latin America. With a host of partners, UNICEF has helped train more than 500 teachers to encourage schools to take a more inclusive approach to sports – and give all children the chance to participate and excel.
Another example is Team UNICEF, which UNICEF kicked off on 10 June. Team UNICEF unites all UNICEF sport-related activities and partnerships to drive change for children. It is built around the premise that sport can change children’s lives by helping to break down barriers, promote participation, change attitudes and include the excluded.
UNICEF has also announced the appointment of our newest sport national ambassador, Sergio Ramos, who is competing in the World Cup for the Spanish national team, and who plays for Real Madrid. We couldn’t be more delighted to have Sergio Ramos as part of the UNICEF team. Although he will accept that I will not support him and his team today.
Of course, we all have our favourite teams in the World Cup, and we will rally behind them. But there is one other team all of you can safely join. I therefore call on you to please join Team UNICEF. Let’s score a goal for children together.
Deputy Executive Director Yoka Brandt developed a lifelong passion for football at an early age, influenced by her older brothers’ enthusiasm for the sport. She played at the age of 10–11, but she gave up because everyone would crowd the ball and ignore the rules. Her brothers took her to watch the home games regularly – and, to this day, they update her weekly on scores and news.