Empowering women through sport: the inspiring initiative of Young Leader Carolina Joly in Panama

On this International Day of the Girl, Young Leader Carolina Joly shares the reasons that prompted her to develop “Move to improve”, a project aimed at empowering women in her home country Panama, and explains how she kept the project running despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Carolina Joly

One of the focus areas of the 2020 International Day of the Girl is the right to live free from gender-based violence and harmful practice, which is also at the core of Carolina Joly’s project. “Move to improve” encourages Panamanian women, primarily those who have suffered severe domestic violence and abuse, to tune into their bodies and move to the enrichening rhythm of sport.

The project combines both of Carolina’s passions: sport and empowering women. In a difficult time it is an inspiring tale, and one that is only at the beginning, according to Joly.

“What we see in countries like mine is that women do not have a platform to speak, to study, to do things,” said Joly, explaining the rationale behind the project she started two years ago. “Many women have gone through such a rough time, they don’t care about having a platform because they just want to get better and move on with their lives, raise their kids, get money.

“It’s not important for them getting healthier or getting exercise or improving themselves or empowering themselves. So, if I can give these women for just a few hours a better life through teaching them what I know, which is sport, then I want to do it.”

The result: two three-hour sports classes each week – on Saturday and Sunday mornings to ensure as many women can attend as possible – for a seven-week period. The main events are boxing, taekwondo and fencing, all serviced by high-quality coaches, but there are also nutritionists and even doctors on site to consult free of charge.

Carolina Joly Carolina Joly
Finding online alternatives

Unfortunately, the restrictions imposed as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic have made it impossible to organise sports classes. That was not enough to stop Carolina, however, who found brilliant alternatives. She launched a virtual monthly meeting with women to empower each other; offered mental support through experts in the field; and organised a weekly programme of online physical activity.

“We are giving our women online exercises for three days per week, and every Friday we are sending out videos from our psychologist who is giving them tasks about empowerment and mental health. We recently had 55 women taking part in our monthly meeting, and we are so grateful and excited about it,” said Joly.

From having a role model to becoming one

Joly did not have far to look when she first decided to turn her dreams into reality.

“I created it because I come from a family where my mum is the youngest child out of 10, and of those 10, eight are women and they are professionals,” Joly explained. “They are doctors, they are lawyers, they are teachers; and they have given us, the daughters and the sons, so many opportunities.

“For me, the most important role model was my oldest aunt. She never graduated from high school so she could take care of the other kids, because my grandma couldn’t do it all. She sacrificed her time and her studying for the other kids. That’s the best role model ever, making other people empowered.”

The aunt is no doubt highly impressed with her niece. Joly has built a project that is making a difference in the lives of women who really need assistance, as Move to Improve works alongside the National Institute of Women in Panama City.

“They have shelters and rehabilitation centres for women who have suffered domestic violence, and we reach out to them and say, ‘OK, come and do some exercise with us, some sport,’” Joly said.

A dream to expand the project

When Move to Improve’s doors were first opened in 2018, seven women attended the first class. After that “scary” beginning, Joly is delighted to reveal that 40 women graduated at the end of the seven weeks in 2018, with 79 emerging in 2019.

The biggest pleasure Joly gets is seeing the change the course instils in its graduates, even when the life experience they carry is heavy.

“In the first class, everybody’s very quiet, quiet mice, nobody asks a question. By the third class, you get girls screaming because they did a really great kick in taekwondo,” Joly said with an infectious laugh.

“Through the classes, they start building confidence and they start talking to us about what they have gone through. We are very proud to say that we are the coaches of a grandmother, daughter and grandchild. I was talking to one woman of 18 and she was pregnant because her cousin had raped her. Those are the things we are dealing with.”

Joly, who spent seven years at the Panama Olympic Committee and now works as part of the local organising committee for the 2022 Central American and Caribbean Games, chose to focus on boxing, taekwondo and fencing because Panama qualified three women for Rio 2016 in those sports. It has proved an inspired choice, with Move to Improve’s women reportedly loving the mix of aggression, finesse and brain power needed in each sport.

“What I dream of is that it becomes a nationwide project,” Joly said. “I do believe that we have communities in other parts of the country that really need this type of thing.”

Empowering Young Leaders

Launched in 2016, the goal of the IOC Young Leaders programme is to give young people the opportunity to create positive change in their communities through the power of sport. Young Leaders applicants can submit a project that leverages sport for a better world in their local communities, and the best projects are allocated a maximum of CHF 5,000 of seed funding. The themes cover Healthy & Active Living, Inclusion, Sustainability, and Peace & Development. 

To date, the IOC has funded 116 projects such as Joly’s worldwide, and with the help of the tireless Young Leaders, more than 25,000 people have already benefited from the scheme. The initiative is supported by the IOC’s TOP Partner Panasonic.

International Day of the Girl

The United Nations General Assembly declared 11 October as the International Day of the Girl in 2011, to recognise girls’ rights and the unique challenges girls face around the world.

The day is even more symbolic this year, as the world celebrates the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the ground-breaking Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which recognised the vital role that sport plays in the advancement and empowerment of women and girls.

Panasonic Young Leaders

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