Sisters do it for their health

Together: Tristan Chan, right, leader of the Sistahood Project, with some of the project members in Sheffields Victoria Quays.
Together: Tristan Chan, right, leader of the Sistahood Project, with some of the project members in Sheffields Victoria Quays.
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THEY are things that many take for granted in their quest to keep active and stay fit and well.

The sex of a lifeguard at a pool does not matter to many, nor the communal changing rooms, or windows of a leisure centre that open out onto the nearby area allowing passers-by to look in.

But for women from some of the diverse cultures that live in Sheffield, these can be huge barriers to being able to take part in sport and leisure activities in an environment that they feel comfortable with.

The Sistahood project, part of the Chilypep children and young people’s empowerment initiative, is working to try and tackle the issues faced by working with leisure providers across the city to come to compromises and solutions.

It was founded three years ago by two young women keen to make a difference in their communities, giving a voice to the young women that live there.

The project, which works with women aged 14 to 21, now has eight core members who carry out research with their local communities across areas like Fir Vale, Firth Park and Burngreave, as well as 30 more who are also known to the group through their database.

Project leader Tristan Chan explained what they are trying to do with the group.

“We want to give young people from these places and these communities a voice,” she said.

“We are trying to encourage participation by getting out into the communities and finding out what their priorities are and what their concerns are.”

One of the biggest things to emerge in recent research - carried out via a questionnaire and a ‘graffiti wall’ where residents could display their thoughts - was problems in accessing sports facilities that were suitable for them because of their cultural practices or religious beliefs.

“This was something that kept coming up,” Tristan said. “And we decided that it was a really important area to try to work on because being able to access sports and leisure activities is key to staying fit and well - especially once you have left school.

Everyone is always trying to encourage healthy lifestyles so our idea was to try to work with local sports providers to get over some of the barriers that BME women face.

“These barriers come about because of certain religious beliefs or practices which can often include the need for a woman to cover her hair or maybe her face. For sports like swimming, obviously they can’t do this - so there has to be a women-only environment to allow them to take part. Our research has also shown that some white, British girls and women would prefer to take part in sport without men, so having female sessions might encourage them to be more active and take part in more sports too.”

The Sistahood members now meet regularly with representatives from Concord Sports Centre in Shiregreen, run by Sheffield International Venues.

The partnership has seen them work together to tackle issues such as unisex changing rooms and windows from which passers-by can see into the swimming pool.

The centre has also hosted a series of women-only football sessions welcoming coaches from the Sheffield Wednesday women’s team.

Tristan explained: “We sit down together and tell them our problems and we try to come to solutions.

“We asked for more changing cubicles and for a bigger gap between the women only sessions and the mixed sessions to ensure no women are still inside the mixed changing rooms when the men arrive - both of which they have introduced. We also told them about our concerns with people being able to look inside when they are walking by and they have agreed to pull the blinds down on the pool windows when it is a women-only session.”

Akifa Bano is one of the Sistahood members.

The 21-year-old from Firth Park said she enjoyed playing an active part in tackling issues that matter to her and other women in the community, and being part of a fun and friendly team.

She has also reaped the benefits of being able to attend sports and leisure sessions without having to worry about feeling uncomfortable.

This could be an issue because Akifa, who is currently on a gap year from her early childhood studies degree at Sheffield Hallam University, is Muslim and recently decided to start wearing a headscarf.

She said: “My religion does not restrict me, and it is my choice to wear the scarf.

“But at the same time swimming is something I really enjoy and without the women-only sessions I wouldn’t feel comfortable going to the pool. I also took part in the football coaching sessions with the Sheffield Wednesday women’s team and they were really fun. We didn’t have to worry about the boys laughing at us or showing off!

“I could go to the gym to keep fit, but I personally prefer sports. You can take part in a group which is nice and it gives you a chance to take a break from everything that is going on and just relax and have fun together.

“It makes you feel good.”

Tristan said she was pleased with the progress and achievements of the group so far - but is keen to expand it in other areas of the city. Funding for the project is an issue however, since their current grants run out at the end of August.

“We have a good relationship with the staff there and have achieved some positive things,” she said.

“Now we want to roll that out to other areas of the city, working with other leisure centres to introduce new sports like basketball and ice-skating.

“We’re trying to raise awareness that these issues do exist and ensure that every woman, from every community, can keep fit and keep healthy and have a voice about the things that matter to them.”

The work of the Sistahood project, which also includes tackling a host of other issues and concerns such as the rise in university tuition fees and education cuts, will be shared at a meeting in Sheffield tomorrow night.

Everyone is welcome to the session, which will be held at the Pakistan Advice and Community Association at 127 Page Hall Road from 6pm until 7pm to hear more about the group, in particular their research and ambitions for improving sports provision for BME women.

Anyone who can help with ideas for future funding should contact should email tristan.chan@chilypep.org.uk or call her on 07800 513193.