Maria Gedeon, the Director of Marketing and Communications for Zayed Sports City, discusses the full integration of women in the sport in the UAE. This opinion was originally published in The National.
We've entered an exciting new era for women in sport in the UAE. Just six years ago 80% of the sports on offer at Zayed Sports City catered for men only. Today, the split is almost even. More intense focus on promoting sport to women has seen higher participation rates and the UAE's ability to attract international competitions has helped to boost its image. Only this month, more than 200 women competed in the World Bowling Championships in Abu Dhabi and most importantly, the UAE was represented at the event.
Competitive female sports in the UAE are still in their infancy and it will take time before we see Emirati women winning gold medals at the Olympics. Successful sporting nations have high performance training programmes in place to develop young athletes and we are beginning to see that emerging here. Great credit must go to the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy, which was set up to empower women and girls in the UAE through promoting sports, physical activity and healthy lifestyles. With its support, Zahra Lari has an excellent chance of representing the UAE in figure skating at the Winter Olympics in 2018. Zahra's achievements to date are a wonderful example of the potential of female Emirati athletes.
Of course the achievements of Sheikha Maitha Bint Mohamed bin Rashed Al Maktoum and Sheikha Latifa bint Ahmed Al Maktoum have been inspiring. Being the first female UAE nationals to compete in the Olympic Games broke down barriers for local women and helped to change the mind-set of how women in sport are viewed in the region. Since then we have witnessed some landmark moments including FIFA's decision to lift the ban on the hijab in 2012. This has encouraged more Emirati women to play football and we now have three local teams playing in the IPIC Women's League; Wahda, Al Nasr and Al Ahli.
But it's not just football, we can see participation rising across a range of sports. The formation of the Urban-Ultra Women's Cycle League in the UAE has increased the number of women cyclists taking part in competition. If we look at the numbers, there has been a 34% increase in female cyclists participating since 2001. We also should give credit to the Abu Dhabi Health Authority, Abu Dhabi Sports Council and corporations like Daman who have provided women with more opportunities for athletic participation. These initiatives encourage women to compete, to exercise and to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
And that's vitally important. We need to raise awareness when it comes to the benefits of sport for physical and mental health. Like many countries in the MENA region, the risk of diabetes and obesity is increasing annually. The World Health Organisation's World Health Statistics 2015 shows that 45.1% of women in the UAE are obese, the seventh highest proportion of obese women in the world. That's an incredibly high and worrying statistic so I hope we can increase the involvement of women in sport to create more awareness in terms of healthy living, fitness and well-being, while also shedding some light on health risks that pertain to women in the UAE.
To highlight the benefits of sport and the importance of exercise, sporting Influencers and empowered women are essential role-models to young girls, motivating them to actively participate in sports. But not just from a competitive or health perspective, we need to encourage women to look to the sporting industry for career opportunities.
As the sporting industry grows, we need more managers, fitness coaches, instructors, physiotherapists, sports psychologists, nutritionists, journalists and marketers. And not just men, we are now entering an era where women will occupy some of the top roles in world sport. The gender gap is shortening and none more so than in the UAE. Women like Her Excellency Reem Al-Hashimi, the UAE Minister of State, are leading the way and continue to strive for greatness by proving the strong capabilities of women in this country.
At Zayed Sports City we are on an ongoing mission to not only help to create future sporting champions, but to also open the doors for more women and girls to become actively involved in sport at all levels. The Women's World Bowling Championships has been a celebration of women in sport and is testament to the UAE's support for an inclusive sporting environment. As we enter the nation's 45th year, I believe that women will make a significant contribution to the future success of the UAE's sporting and commercial activities.