Girls Got Game empowers young girls through basketball, on and off the court

The Philippines ranks 8th in the world when it comes to gender equality, according to the Global Gender Gap Report. Sounds impressive, right? But reality tells a different story. The ranking is largely based on educational attainment and whether women enter the workforce.

It doesn’t talk about the way that gender gap intersects with other challenges like poverty, and it sure doesn’t talk about the cultural norms and gender stereotypes that condition young girls to believe they’re the weaker sex.

There’s still a lot of work to be done. Girls Got Game (GGG), however, is doing its part by empowering young girls through sports camps focused on areas with difficult economic conditions.

“Their goals are not impossible nor far away”

While basketball isn’t the only sport they feature in their camps—GGG believes that all sports can teach values like discipline and grit—it was one of three sports they launched with.

The connection to the sport was personal, shares basketball program director Val Chua. “Spearheaded by [founding partners] Krizanne Ty and Nikka Arcilla, they tapped into their network of athletes to gather volunteers and core members to help implement the GGG program. Krizanne was a former Lady Eagle and most of the volunteers for basketball at the time were in our circle,” Chua shares.

Together, the GGG team built a program that’s equal parts basketball basics, personal development, and fun. Some girls in their camps have not even tried basketball before signing up, so they adjust to fit different skill levels. The girls are split into teams named after local Filipina athletes, receive advice from “MVP Speakers,” and meet coaches and volunteers who are passionate about seeing them succeed.

“We make sure that the girls have local role models that they can interact with and to show them that their goals are not impossible nor far away. There are everyday women who continue to thrive regardless of their backgrounds,” adds Chua.

Boys’ camps also use basketball as a vehicle for character building, but there’s a different sense of urgency when you’re working with underprivileged girls. GGG managing director Mariana Lopa said on an episode of the 12 Minutes With podcast, “The age of our participants is crucial for us. We only do the camps for 10-12 year old girls. What happens at that age? Girls get periods, and it’s the age they decide am I gonna do something useful with my life, or am I going to stay at home and have a family early?”

“I have really good friends who are teen moms, but that’s not the track you want to push on kids. You want them to be confident and know they have opportunities. We spark a dream, bring in MVP Speakers [who say], ‘I was like you. I was 10 years old and didn’t know what to do with my life. My mom said try to play a sport, that sent me to college for free, taught me to manage my time, taught me to focus,” added Lopa.

“Showing women that they can do what men do on the court shows them that they can also do what men do off it. The qualities needed to succeed on court can directly be implemented in real life situations,” Chua shares. “Competing in sports gives you the advantage of learning lessons you would learn in the workplace at an earlier stage in life. It teaches you teamwork, discipline, endurance, strength, and many more qualities that is part of the blueprint to succeeding in life.”

“Playing sports puts everyone on an even field”

Chua herself played for Ateneo during her college days, and volunteered at many of GGG’s basketball camps before the organization offered her a bigger role.

“Being able to participate in the UAAP, one of the highest levels of competition in the country, and seeing the amount of support and exposure women’s basketball has had over the years motivates me even more to teach the younger generation,” Chua says.

Chua’s favorite memory with the organization was their first camp in Davao. “It was the biggest camp that we had to date and brought girls from areas that have civil wars around Mindanao. Just seeing these girls from isolated areas play and compete and interact with girls their age that come from a whole different background was reward enough. Playing sports puts everyone in an equal playing field and that moment attested to that,” she shares.

In some areas, even pushing basketball for women is subversive. Many schools in the Philippines assign basketball for boys and volleyball for girls, subtly reinforcing stereotypes that some fields are “panlalaki” and “pambabae.” If you ask the best players in the UAAP today, it’s common to hear that they started playing late because camps weren’t available in their area. Introducing basketball to some girls is literally opening a door that seemed shut.

“It’s really confidence,” Lopa said in the podcast. “When we start, we ask them, ‘marunong ba kayong mag-basketball?’ And the girls say ‘hindi, panlalaki yan!’ Then they play and they find out they’re pretty good, it’s fun and they can be like the coaches they work with. At the end of the camp, they’re like ‘magaling na ako mag-basketball, coach!”

GGG is happy to see that progress, as well as a larger cultural shift towards seeing more women in basketball. “It’s a lot better than it was 21 years ago. Growing up I had no leagues to play in. I played in the league of the boys, I joined camps where I was the only girl. There were not a lot of opportunities, if you wanted to make it in basketball, you had to do it on your own,” Lopa said.

Chua is also glad to see change happening. “When I was in grade school, there was a good couple of years that I had stopped playing due to lack of exposure and availability of resources until I convinced my dad to buy me a hoop,” she shares. “Just the amount of youth development programs out there in general has significantly increased in the last 10 years. Girls just need to have the guts to participate and become more proactive in improving their games and not shying away from the opportunities that they have now.”

It’s important that empowering women isn’t seen as women’s issue that men can overlook, but instead see it as a common good for a better world.

“I think [advocates] should be a mix of both [men and women],” Chua says. “People are always put in a better position to succeed when their peers support them. Women backing women up is the first step. To be honest, most men i work with are even bigger advocates of women’s basketball than a lot of women i know, and that motivates me to push even harder to not only teach younger women, but to succeed in my personal profession as well.

Chua’s idea of a perfect basketball world? One where women get paid equally to play basketball as men are. “When the time comes that women’s basketball receives the same amount of support as men’s basketball, these kids need to be ready to bring their A-game.”

In the meantime, GGG will keep working to empower girls—on and off the court, for life in sport and life that comes after it.

Find out more about Girls Got Game and how you can help out in their camps.

Photos from Girls Got Game