Free to Run. The freedom to run. The knowledge that, time constraints allowing, we can lace up our trainers and head off onto our chosen trail or path for some well deserved me time.
Time where we don’t have to worry about the bills, or the kids new school or whether you’re going to be stoned to death for wearing improper clothing.
Ok, so the last one isn’t really a concern here in London, but sadly there are people for whom even the most basic freedoms that we take for granted are wildly beyond their imagination. The freedom to express themselves through physical exertion. The freedom to meet and train with other like-minded women and to gain, even for a short time, a measure of independence that their society wouldn’t otherwise grant them.
But thanks to Stephanie Case and an organization called Free to Run, at least some of those women will get to fulfill their potential, and to feel what it’s like to have some of the freedoms we take for granted.
Free to Run is a non-governmental organization (NGO), which aims to improve the life of women in conflict-affected areas of the world, by using sport and fitness to empower and educate people into overcoming gender, religious and ethnic discrimination.
What that means in practical terms is by going into areas like the tribal areas of Afghanistan and like the south Sudanese refugee camps and setting up gym classes, boxing lessons and simple running sessions, women are not only given a place to themselves to practice sports and express themselves through physical exercise, but also to challenge the traditional cultural roles women in these societies are assigned. By empowering women and educating men, Free to Run uses sport to challenge the perception of the role of women in public life, in societies where traditionally they had less freedom.
Case set up Free to Run in mid 2014 when she was working as a Human Rights officer for the United Nations. Case is now based in the UN compound in Gaza city, having spent time in the Afghanistan and South Sudan dealing with the humanitarian crises that the continuing conflicts have wrought there. Transitioning from a comfortable life in corporate law, to living in a tent amongst thousands of displaced people in Africa has been a huge change, but she feels a worthwhile one. Instead of endless email ping pong and corporate buzzwords, she now gets to influence life on it’s most basic level. Do people have enough to eat? A place to sleep? Are they in fear of their lives, wondering if the camp is going to be over run? And by satisfying those basic needs she has introduced a scheme whereby women can broaden their horizons beyond the next meal, and discover there are challenges that are for them alone. She gives them something that is just for them. Something where they can stand and fall with no one else to rely on but themselve and, by doing so, gain a measure of independence and self respect.
From hosting yoga classes in Kabul, to creating an Afghani ultra marathon team, Free to Run has used sport to raise self esteem, build social cohesion and encourage women to break free from the cultural and social straits that have been inposed upon them. But for all the work that has been done, of course, there remains much more to do. We still live in an imperfect world and there are large parts of it where women are treated as second and third-class citizens.
Free to Run aims to challenge and change those beliefs. Primarily by empowering and enabling women but also by education. Because everyone should have the freedom to run shouldn’t they?
By Gary Dalton