On Facebook yesterday, the Boccia International Sports Federation asked, “We will be discussing all the important issues to ensure we can build a better boccia. Are there any important issues that you think we should be discussing?”
Highlighting issues regarding the importance of gender inclusion in Paralympic sport, there were two conflicting comments on this issue. Argentine Lautaro Cheppi responded with, “How to increase the participation of women and youth boccia´s players all around the world. And if is posible to give medals to the BC3´s assistants.” Meanwhile, Brit Sarah Wilson responded with, “The Paralympic female quota. Why is it so high (or even there at all), when MD, CP and many other disorders affect males massively more than females? Why do want to have a sport where you may be unable to pick the best players because they are the wrong sex?” Other responses to the question included classification and growing the sport in sub-Saharan Africa.
Women’s participation in Paralympic sport across all levels is an issue that has been drawing increased attention in the past few years, especially as conversations about female participation in able-bodied sport have increased.
Addressing gender equality in the context of disability, published by the United Nations says “that female disability prevalence rate is 19.2 per cent whereas it is 12 per cent for men”. Disability Among Racial and Ethnic Groups published by Julia E. Bradsher in 1996 found that women in the USA with severe disabilities are at a slightly higher percentage of the population than men across all ethnic groups.
When it comes to cerebral palsy, Case gender and severity in cerebral palsy varies with intrauterine growth and Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder Among Children Aged 8 Years — Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 11 Sites, United States, 2010 show that men are much more likely to have cerebral palsy and severe forms of it. The same patterns hold true for muscular dystrophy, which is much more like to present in males than female.
Boccia is a mixed gender competition, where men and women compete against each other at the same event and inside the same classification groups. It is specifically for competitors with severe physical disabilities. Some boccia events do indeed have quota systems, or only up slots for additional male players after organizers have unfilled spots. This is the case for the Bipartite Commission Invitational. For the 2016 Summer Paralympics, with guidance from the International Paralympic Committee, the maximum number of competitors is 108, with 28 of these players needing to be women. That is 24%.
At the Bejing Games, female participation in boccia was 1.9%. Only wheelchair rugby, sailing and wheelchair fencing had lower rates of female participation.
The fact that boccia has largely been supported on the Paralympic program as a way to encourage the participation of high support needs athletes, and more specifically high support needs athletes with cerebral palsy, means the sport is more primed than others to have a gender imbalance. There are a number of issues facing women with disabilities that deter them away from participating in sports, and for high support needs women, there are additional barriers including economic ones. These factors aggravate the gender prevalence issues the sport already has to deal with when it comes to recruiting sportspeople.
It will be interesting to watch in the next few years, and more directly after the BISFed General Assembly, how gender issues are handled in the wider context of increasing female participation in Paralympic sport.