Beyond the Game: Women’s Basketball Tournament Empowers Syrian Women in the Aftermath of Disaster
In February 2023, a series of earthquakes, with the strongest being a 7.8 magnitude, hit southwestern Turkey and Syria, causing unprecedented damage and destruction. The earthquakes affected several governorates in Syria’s north, central, and western parts, including Aleppo, Hama, Idleb, Lattakia, and Tartous. The disaster exacerbated the suffering of the most vulnerable populations in the affected areas that had already been greatly impacted by 12 years of war and hosting large numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs).
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Syria is supporting the emergency humanitarian response to the earthquakes through its mandate in early recovery in crisis and post-crisis settings.
In addition to the devastating human toll and infrastructure damage, the scale and traumatic impact of the multiple earthquakes and aftershocks had a detrimental impact on people’s physical health and emotional wellbeing across the impacted areas.
On 08 March 2023, in Hama, western Syria, UNDP launched the first women’s basketball tournament of 2023. The event not only marked International Women’s Day, but was also part of the UNDP’s psychosocial support initiatives for people impacted by the earthquake, especially women. Five teams from Hama’s urban and rural areas competed in the tournament, represented by 77 players. Around 120 people from different communities attended the games to cheer the players. Hama Governorate, which has a rich cultural and historical significance, is home to diverse religious and ethnic groups. Unfortunately, it was one of the areas affected by the earthquake and subsequent floods.
According to Zain, an 18-year-old woman who is the only woman basketball referee and sports journalist in Hama, “Basketball and sports, in general, are more than just games. They played a significant role in developing my interpersonal and social skills. Sports gave me a sense of belonging. Playing basketball is what kept me going through the war”.
Sports can provide significant psychosocial support to individuals in communities impacted by crises and disasters. For vulnerable populations, such as women, engaging in sports can help manage stress, cope with trauma, and improve mental health and wellbeing.
“I grew up watching my dad coach a boys basketball team, and I fell in love with the sport. It was not easy when I first started as a referee. I heard a lot of discouraging comments, but it never stopped me from following my passion,” added Zain.
Women participating in sports help break down traditional gender roles and feel empowered with newfound self-confidence. Beyond personal growth, sports provide a platform for social interaction, where women can come together to address societal issues that affect them directly.
As Zain said, “It is time to celebrate the women who continue to challenge the status quo and recognize the transformative power of sports in breaking down barriers and creating a more equitable world”.
In the weeks leading up to the tournament, mobile teams from the UNDP’s Women Safe Spaces project visited the participating teams in their hometowns. They provided awareness sessions on gender justice and their rights as active members of society to boost their self-confidence. Unfortunately, three teams could not participate in the tournament due to blocked roads after the earthquake severely affected their hometowns.
“This initiative highlights the important role that women play in society. They are not just housewives — they have the right to be journalists, referees, players, and coaches. They are also mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters. We must support and encourage them to pursue their aspirations. Women make up half of society after all,” Zain added.
Incorporating sports into psychosocial support interventions offers a holistic approach to recovery, addressing both physical and mental health needs while promoting social cohesion and resilience. Through their participation in sports, women are changing the game by breaking down barriers and creating a more equitable world.
By Asma’ Nashawati, Communications Associate, UNDP Syria