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England and Arsenal player Leah Williamson calls for equality in soccer

Leah Williamson Leah Williamson - The Canadian Press

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — When England soccer player Leah Williamson addressed the United Nations in New York this week, she spoke of her recent visit to Za’atari in Jordan, the world's biggest Syrian refugee camp.

She spoke of the power of sport — soccer in particular — to change lives after witnessing the work being done by Save The Children and The Arsenal Foundation within the camp.

Girls, she says, became empowered after being introduced to the sport, while male attitudes were changed as a result.

Williamson's message, however, goes beyond one laudable project with refugees in Jordan. She is using her status to challenge gender stereotypes that she says continue to hold women and girls back and is calling for parity in soccer.

“The world has been the way it has been for a long, long time,” she told The Associated Press before her address on Tuesday. "Not only do we face the stereotype from these sort of archaic beliefs that women are only meant to be a certain way ... But we are also conditioned to believe them. So I think it is not just a conversation that needs to be had with men, it needs to be had with women who can then find the confidence to take the opportunity when it is presented to them.”

Williamson is calling for a “level playing field.”

There is an obvious disparity between the opportunities afforded refugees and women and girls from more affluent parts of the world. But the England captain says gender imbalance is widespread.

The recent Women's World Cup underlined the soaring popularity of women's soccer, while the growth of leagues in Europe is further evidence of its appeal. Yet there have also been reminders of the issues that remain in the game.

The tournament was overshadowed by the fallout after former Spanish soccer federation president Luis Rubiales kissed player Jenni Hermoso on the lips during the awards ceremony for Spain’s triumph in Australia last month.

“It’s the exact reason I am here, I go to Jordan and I want to be involved in these events in the U.N. to highlight what isn’t just an isolated incident,” Williamson said. "It’s the life. It’s the environment we’ve created for women and the environment we are trying to step away from and be respected in the way we should be.

“There are so many things that we’ve been conditioned to believe ‘that’s what happens,’" Williamson said. “A woman walks down the street and she accepts certain things happen because that’s just the way of the world.” She added, "we can change it. That’s up to us. I’m trying. I’m doing my bit.”

There have been other disputes over pay and conditions.

England's preparations for the World Cup were cast against the backdrop of a dispute with the Football Association over bonuses and commercial arrangements.

Players in the Spanish women’s league called for strike action over pay and members of the national team were in open rebellion with their federation and demanding reform from the governing body.

Most of Spain’s World Cup-winning players ended their boycott of the national team on Wednesday after an agreement that was expected to lead to immediate structural changes at the federation.

Williamson plays for Arsenal, which is one of the elite clubs in European soccer and competes in the Women's Super League in England.

Still she says more needs to be done to achieve parity, given women were officially banned from playing soccer in England from 1921 to 1970.

“If you want to be real about it, we were banned for 50 years,” said Williamson. "So you’re 50 years behind and however much difference that makes. It doesn’t need comparing to the men in terms of what it is. But we have a lovely little marker based on men’s football ... we have the stadiums there for example so we know the goal is to sell out 60,000 seater (stadium) because that’s what we’ve made for men’s football. So it’s there, why do we not aspire to it?

“I think when we say level playing field, what we want are the same opportunities with the same respect to try to make the game what it is. There should be no question or no one should get less of an opportunity for being a woman."

In Za’atari, Williamson saw how the ‘Coaching for Life’ program positively impacted families affected by the Syrian war.

Launched in 2018 by The Arsenal Foundation and Save The Children, it's designed to “build a sense of belonging and improve the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of children and their families.”

It required a changing of attitudes to get more girls involved. While just a handful took part in its first year, the program says there are now an equal number of girls and boys graduating in its fifth year.

“I think it’s a demonstration that actually most of the problems of what we have are based on what people believe are acceptable and not acceptable,” Williamson said. “I saw what pitches can do. We’re in the desert. It’s beige everywhere. Suddenly you turn a corner and there is a grass pitch and the mood and how the kids behave around it, it symbolizes freedom."


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