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Support creates an active space for “neglected” part of Birmingham community

The MOVE project has opened the door for a group of women in England, who would normally shy away from physical activity, to be part of a public recreational setting. The boost of funding the Aston Sports and Community Club (ASC) in Birmingham received through the project inspired its staff to start a targeted pilot initiative, LifeStyle, which would give the women a space where they and their children felt welcome and keen to get active.


South Asian women in Birmingham, particularly mothers and those from a Muslim background, are faced with more challenges than other women and men in their community, and many don’t engage in social and recreational activities outside of their families. They are just as much health challenges as they are social challenges, according to Pamela Castro from the ASC, who explains why the ASC saw it as vital to create a programme especially for these women.


“There is hard evidence that the health issues related with lack of physical activity are really severe in the ethnic groups that we’re working with. There are high incidences of cardio-vascular disease, high blood pressure and things like that. Their level of participation, obviously compared to men, but also compared to other women, is much lower than normal,” she says.


The ASC, which is a member of StreetGames UK, arranged for one of its own members, the Sister 2 Sister group in the Aston area of Birmingham, to help coordinate the LifeStyle pilot project. Sister 2 Sister is a family-run initiative which aims to provide activities for women in a relaxed, non-threatening environment. But despite its work in the area, Castro says there was still an obvious gap in support for local women and that, as community organisations, both the ASC and Sister 2 Sister experienced difficulties in securing funding to get projects off the ground. The MOVE project gave them an opportunity they couldn’t resist.


“The main benefit of the MOVE project was having the opportunity to do some work that wouldn’t otherwise be funded,” Castro says. “We had a concern that it was quite easy to promote and develop programmes for boys and men in that area, but the women were neglected. This was both in terms of the potential for initiatives and the opportunities existing in the local area for them.”


Learning curve follows successful launch

With a boost of funding and a target group in sight, the ASC and Sister 2 Sister, as well as women from the Sister 2 Sister group, embarked on a marketing campaign to promote and launch the LifeStyle project in 2012. The immediate results were encouraging – 100 girls and women took part in the launch and joined in with activities such as Zumba, belly dancing and cooking demonstrations. The follow-up response, however, was a surprise disappointment.


“After all that work we asked people to give us their contact details to invite them to the weekly sessions, but we only got about 20 contacts from the event and the number of people who actually started coming to the sessions was just five. So it was a big learning curve for us,” Castro explains.


In the end, the regular group of participants in the LifeStyle project turned out to range from 8-15 women each week, plus their children, who were also welcome to join in. Although it was a lower number than originally expected, Castro believes the engagement from the women who were involved was rewarding. The women were allowed to choose their own activities, and even chose to keep activities from the launch including Zumba and the cooking classes. They also took part in health awareness sessions and listened to guest presentations from other women in their community.


Castro says it was important for all of the physical activity sessions to be held indoors to make the women feel comfortable to participate. She also found it an advantage to employ staff the women could relate to:


“We found a Muslim Zumba instructor who wears a veil, so it’s really lovely to see them when they arrive and all of the women start taking their veils off. Within the Pakistani community, if they feel safe and there are no men around, they do this. Even the elderly women – there were some grannies in the back and they were moving too, so that was very successful.”


From trial and error to sustainable outreach

With the experience the ASC and Sister 2 Sister gained from running their MOVE pilot project, they have now created a model based on LifeStyle that can be rolled out to other community venues in the area. The trial and error they worked through during MOVE project changed their approach to how they deliver the initiative, which Castro believes will lead to a more sustainable outreach programme in the future.


“Now we have the confidence so we’re starting to do more outreach now, but not through a marketing campaign; we’re doing it more through community work. So we’re approaching community group leaders and asking them, ‘If you have a group of women, let’s get together and I can explain the programme to you and if you have more than 10 women, we can put a package together for you,’” she says.


“We’re also working with public nurseries, where women go and they have to stay there with their children. So we’re trying to work with the management to see if we can actually run our sessions in these places.”


By Rachel Payne, ISCA