Naseem Akhtar, CEO of Saheli Hub, spoke to APSE Direct about breaking down barriers for women’s participation in physical activity.
I came to this country when I was just one. I grew up with five brothers and they all loved sport and so did I. Up until the age of 10 I often played out just like my brothers but then it all changed. I was told as a girl I should really be more ladylike. I thought most girls were like me. How wrong I was. When I started at my all-girls secondary school I thought I’d have friends to play sport with me, but to my horror, not only did the Asian girls hate sport the English girls did too. I couldn’t understand it. Girls in my area went to school then they went home. And that’s all they did. No after school or weekend clubs, no opportunities to meet up and play sport. I thought the next generation of girls would get to do everything I couldn’t. How wrong I was.
I grew up in Balsall Heath, a deprived but socially rich area of Birmingham. Here, on average, an Asian man will die 10 years sooner than his white counterpart living four streets away. The national average for life expectancy is 75. In Birmingham it’s 72, and in the neighbourhood where I grew up, as a man, you’d be lucky to get to the age of 65. My father died before he reached 60. And, statistically, not only do Asian men die 10 years sooner, they spend the last decade - of those already decade-shorter lives - on medication due to poor diet and low levels of physical activity. Statistically the Asian community (especially women) is the least likely to take up physical activity and sport.
We had the biggest sports centre on the edge of our neighbourhood – ‘outsiders’ came from all over the city – but I didn’t know anyone, not even boys, who went there. When I was 28, after having two children, I decided I needed to get fit so I went to the ‘women’s hour’ in the sports centre. There were only three women there and all the equipment was sitting idle.
No one had ever asked local women what they wanted until a local consultation on placing CCTV cameras failed to reach local Asian women. That’s when I got involved, and the local neighbourhood forum recognized my enthusiasm and offered me a job. First thing I did was a feasibility study to find out what women wanted. Two hundred and fifty six local women wanted a health and fitness centre but it had to be run by women for women - so women only- and they wanted to take part in: swimming, exercise and fitness sessions, health related activities.
Why didn’t those women go to the biggest sports centre on the edge of their neighbourhood? They told us that the women’s hour wasn’t at times when they were free. They told us that there were men in and around the building and so they felt that they were not welcome and that their culture and language needs wouldn’t be understood. I thought, ‘Now I have all these views, the Health Board will help me’. No! ‘We do health’ they said ‘not leisure. You need to see the City Council - they do fitness’. I went to see the leisure department and they said ‘We don’t do health we do sport. You need to see the NHS’. I was told ‘Asian women doing sport? That’s not going to happen’. So I decided I’d show them we do want to do sport.
I secured some money for young girls’ activities and booked skiing, canoeing, and biking sessions. To my horror, when I asked ,they said they wanted jewellery making and pottery…I said I’d do that next time! The sport sessions became very popular and it was the first time anyone had ever put on a girls club for Asian girls in this city. After the first block of activities finished, I asked the girls what they wanted next time and they said quad biking and a beach trip to Wales.
At first, no one believed in or would fund a centre run by and for women, but I kept fighting until the local college vice principal gave me the chance to pilot a women only day in April of that year. We secured money through the Healthy Living Centres fund, and used the main library space for classes. By September, we had so many local women coming in the college gave us the space Monday to Sunday. Plus, once they’d come though the door for our fitness sessions, many women were now taking up courses on site – a real breakthrough for the college with a group that they found hard-to-reach.
In 2006, we secured funding from Sport England’s Active England grant and converted the space into a fully functioning health and fitness facility with changing rooms. Most importantly, the centre had a controlled door system – this way, when we said women only, it was women only. Our KPI was to have 250 women paying £10 a month in year one. In the first two weeks we signed up 255 women, and we’ve never looked back. Don’t worry, we did let the men in on Wednesdays, so local fathers, brothers and husbands also got a chance to get active and get fit.
We now deliver indoor and outdoor programmes, from seated exercise to Zumba and body fit, from walking to jogging and running including 10ks, half and full marathons. We teach in five parks and have taught over 3,000 women how to ride a bike. We take women on long led rides (10-20 miles), and we have activities from bell boating to canoeing and kayaking. We have developed partnerships with NGBs to do thing differently – to do things The Saheli Way as we call it – successfully introducing women to tennis, squash and archery. We operate out of four wellbeing centres, two libraries, five parks and four GP surgeries; recently we have been commission by the NHS Health Inequalities team to tackle Diabetes through our innovative Culturally Appropriate Prevention of Diabetes programme.
After 23 years of working in sport and fitness in the community and successfully supporting over 17,000 women I know it’s possible to engage those that are least likely to participate. What you can’t do is just sit back and wait for people to come through your doors. You need to engage/ second/employ someone from within that community. who can work with that community to develop their confidence so coming through your doors becomes a natural part of their journey to health and fitness.
We call it the Saheli Way and this is how we do it...
Small steps to physical activity – Delivering social clubs (knit & natter, talking art etc.) as the first step to their physical activity journey. Once they are comfortable, women meet and make friends with women like
themselves who are cycling and running, and that friendship inspires them to join in.
Local – We are based in people’s communities, not in large facilities that are impersonal and daunting. Women only where needed – With mixed sessions depending on the site, make up and culture of the participants: we deliver what they need in the way that they need it.
A workforce that is reflective of the communities we serve – We train and develop our volunteers to become the next generation of paid leaders in fitness, cycling, tennis, squash - seeing communities like mine being active becomes just a way of life.
Prevention not cure – We are part of changing the system from trying to cure people to preventing people getting conditions like diabetes and coronary heart disease. All these conditions are preventable if you get and remain active.
Prioritise women – Women are the key to change; I always say if you educate a man, you educate a man; if you educate a woman, you educate a family and that’s how you get generational shifts.
So, if you are serious about reaching those who are least likely to participate in physical activity and sport and want to make a real difference to those who need it most try the Saheli Way and let me know how you get on.
• Naseem spoke on this topic at the APSE Sports and Leisure Seminar 2023 in Loughborough on 3 November. The presentation is available to download from the APSE website here.