Malala Fund’s 2020 Game Changer series is championing 30 female athletes from around the world who are breaking barriers in both their sports and their communities.

Produced by Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund, the Game Changer series highlights all the ways in which sports positively affect the lives of women and girls.

Representing 24 countries, the athletes profiled include Olympic and Paralympic stars as well as promising newcomers from across the sporting landscape. The breadth of experience and diversity of backgrounds provides a unique global snapshot of women in sports today.

Featured athletes range from Miki Matheson, a three-time Paralympic gold medalist, to Tanya Muzinda, a 15-year-old hoping to become the first female motocross champion from Africa. Readers have a chance to meet Atefa, the first girl in Afghanistan to land a kickflip, as well as hear from Tyasha Harris, the No. 7 pick in this year’s WNBA draft pick, about what it meant to her to play for Dawn Staley at South Carolina.

What unites the athletes in the series is their common commitment to using sports to push for critical social change within their own communities.

“The problems that our Game Changers are using their platforms to speak out against include lack of access to education, gender discrimination, racism, and negative perceptions of people with disabilities,” says Tess Thomas, Assembly’s editor.

“These are all issues that girls around the world face. So we wanted the young women who read Assembly to look at our Game Changers and see themselves and their lives reflected in these athletes’ stories and understand that they also have the potential to be leaders on the field and leaders in their communities.”

Many of the athletes highlighted are changing the history of both their sport and their country.

Pratima Sherpa was born and raised in the maintenance shed of a golf club where her parents still work in Nepal. Practicing during after hours on the course where she lived, Pratima is now her country’s top-ranked female golfer, and last year she made history as the first Nepali woman to compete on the LPGA Tour.

Lucía Montenegro is not simply one of the fastest wheelchair racers in the world. Her fight to become the first student with a disability accepted at her school changed the institutions enrollment policies, paving the way for further students with disabilities to enroll.

In an essay entitled “Levelling the playing field,” Malala Fund’s advocacy coordinator Laura Denham lays out the research showing the potential for sports to help girls thrive in school, at home and in their careers. When girls succeed on the field, they’re more likely to succeed in the classroom, and they are more likely to excel in traditionally male-dominated subjects like STEM. The annual wages of former athletes are also on average about 7% higher than those of non-athletes in the US, and a study by Ernst and Young found that 94% of business leaders played sports when they were younger.

Denham notes that despite the significant personal and social benefits of girls participation in sports, the world still has a long way to go until there’s equal participation across the genders.

“Practical and environmental factors — such as lack of facilities or transportation — often make it difficult for girls to participate in sports… Discriminatory gender norms also prevent girls from becoming athletes. In the U.K., 43% of girls surveyed said that fear of being judged about their appearance stopped them participating in sport and exercise.”

TYASHA HARRIS (ICON SPORTSWIRE/GETTY IMAGES)

Through its athlete profiles, the Game Changers series illuminates the strong overlap between sports participation, academic achievement and leadership. For Thomas, this relationship between athletics and activism is anything but accidental.

“Sports is obviously a great way for girls to showcase their leadership abilities,” she says. “As you can see through the Game Changers series, they really extend that leadership off the field, and to the different issues that are affecting their communities.”

One such athlete is Uganda’s only competitive para-swimmer, 13-year-old Husnah Kukundakwe. Husnah says swimming has not only helped her develop confidence, it’s also given her a platform with which to speak up for girls’ education in Uganda, where many drop out of school at a young age due to poverty, early marriage, forced marriage, and pregnancy.

“When I realised that I actually motivate people,” Husnah told Assembly, “I wanted to keep doing it so that I can increase awareness about people with disabilities and girls going to school.”

The Game Changers series makes it clear that the benefits of investing in female athletes extend well beyond the field, as sports allow these young women to find both the confidence and the skillset needed to be leaders in the world.

“Malala Fund really believes that girls are not only the leaders of tomorrow,” says Thomas, “but the leaders of today, and their voices and their opinions need to be heard and need to be a part of the global conversation.”

The Malala Fund was co-founded by Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, who first rose to prominence as an 11 year old by blogging about her experience under Taliban-rule in Pakistan. An international non-profit organization fighting for girls’ right to education, the Malala Fund launched Assembly in 2018 in order to create a platform for girls to tell their stories, share their ideas, and learn from one another.

You can meet all the athletes in the Game Changers series by clicking here.