Empowerment Through Swimming

by | April 8, 2013
filed under Feminism

swimmingby Matilda Branson

Every year, 175,000 children throughout the world die from drowning. This makes drowning the second of the top five causes of injury death in children worldwide, second only to road crashes.  But where does this fit in with, say, gender or development? Bear with me, dear friends.

Coming from Australia, learning to swim and surf were an inherent part of growing up. Most children are dragged through insurmountable survival swim classes from the age of four onwards. They learn to tread water, swim kilometres in pools fully clothed imagining: “If I fell off a boat, what would I do?” scenarios, chucking ropes and any flotation devices (read: plastic milk bottles, buckets, kickboards, anything at hand) at each other, handling currents and learning to conserve energy, not to panic and how to save both yourself and others in risky water situations.

Even growing up in a rural farming area in inland Australia far from the sea, we learned the four survival strokes and complex dives – which to use when there is an oil spill in the ocean and which to use when there may be sharp rocks beneath you leaping from a fast-moving speedboat. If James Bond can do it, apparently kids from rural Australia whose closest water source is a cattle trough should be able to as well. Just in case.

As a girl, learning to swim taught me many other things: I learned that baring my body in bathers in front of boys I liked didn’t result in my melting into a puddle like the Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West, and it also showed me we all kind of look similar under all the various fashions we wore. The sheer usefulness of tampons instead of sanitary pads was most obvious when I had to swim on my period. I could hold my breath for longer than anyone – even longer than the jock boys – which equalled immediate schoolyard respect. The positive unintended lessons learned from swimming lessons just go on and on.

In Nepal last week I competed in a triathlon through the Himalayas, where I needed to swim 1.5km across a mountain lake, Lake Begnas. A few days later, in this same lake, three people died and another three people are missing after a fishing boat capsized. I swam across that lake using a curious combination of survival backstroke, breaststroke and sidestroke. I could swim across Lake Begnas because I was a lucky Australian kid from a water-crazy island whose parents took me to swim lessons for many years. Those three people died because they didn’t know how to swim, because there was never the opportunity to learn.

I’ve recently been mulling over the potential benefits of swimming lessons and education for young boys and girls in the context of international development. More and more I believe that learning to swim – especially if you live in an environment surrounded by or in constant contact with rivers, lakes or oceans – is a fundamental human right. It fits snugly under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ principles, such as the right to live in safety or the right to opportunities to develop one’s skills.

Male and female youth empowerment through sport and exercise is nothing new. I even wrote about Nepal’s first national netball team last year and what a great exercise that was in young women’s empowerment.

A few years ago I lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in a high-rise apartment block. My daily exercise in that urban jungle was swimming in the apartment block pool. Every day I would carve up and down that 30m pool doing freestyle. Each day, a dozen teenage Muslim girls (Malaysia being a country with institutionalised Islam the name of the game) dressed in hijabs for swimming would paddle in the corner of the pool, but only up to their waists.

One day as I was ploughing up and down the pool, there was a tap on my shoulder, and one of the girls asked me if I could teach her how to swim. That got me thinking that, I should do something, that very night, I browsed on https://thefloatys.com/pool-floats/ for some gear and for the next month I held informal swim classes for those dozen girls, and each learned preliminary swim skills such as floating, gliding, kicking and survival breaststroke. And you know what?  I had fun teaching. They had fun learning. It was fun. It wasn’t too complex. In fact, it was one of the most immediately empowering skills I’ve come across in gender and development. As well as being fun, a skill that could save a life was being passed on, and could be passed on to another, from mother to child, and so on and so forth.

Teaching youth to swim is not only a preventative measure for drowning and lifesaving, being proactive rather than reactive, but also provides the opportunity to teach and empower young people with new life skills in an environment of equality. You can either do the skill, or you can’t, regardless of gender. Swim skills promote communication, leadership, a sense of achievement, teamwork and allow people, particularly coastal citizens, to overcome strong fears of water. This is particularly relevant in communities where the sea, a river or lake is a major source of livelihoods.

If you take one thing away from this: if you don’t know how to swim, get some classes. Make sure your kids get swim classes. If you know of a kid who maybe can’t afford swim classes, maybe consider helping them out with swim fees. It could save a life.

(photo by Nivet Dilman)

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