03/08/2013 06:54 EST | Updated 03/14/2013 03:17 EDT

International Women's Day: Empowering Our Girls With A Little Play

Right To Play

Generally speaking, women enjoy a relative amount of safety in Canada. But safety is not equality.

International Women's Day was born out of a long-standing movement to enable women to participate equally in society. And what better way to teach children in the ways we want them to grow than through the power of play? When it is structured, something as simple as play can turn into a learning opportunity for growth.

This is what's at the heart of Right To Play, an international humanitarian organization that uses sport and play programs to improve health, develop life skills, and foster peace for children. The program works in the most disadvantaged areas engaging persons with disabilities, children affected by HIV/AIDS, street children, former child combatants and refugees.

Clara Hughes, six-time Olympic medalist (and the only athlete to have multiple medals in both the Summer and Winter Games) and Rosie MacLennan, the lone Canadian gold medalist at the 2012 Summer Olympics, are women who excelled in athletics because of their right to play.

Both ladies are 'Athlete Ambassadors' for the Right To Play program in Canada. They recently spent a few days in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, promoting Level The Field, a part of a national campaign to raise awareness among Canadians about play-based learning at home and abroad.

SEE: Images of Rosie and Clara in Liberia with Right to Play. Story continues below:

Photo gallery Right To Play In Liberia See Gallery

The importance of this program is underscored when we remember that not everyone is as privileged as Canadian girls when it comes to play. Each game created by Right To Play is tailored to the region, with a skill or value embedded that is discussed at length at the end. One activity involved statements that fostered conversations about discrimination and stereotypes. In her blog, MacLennan noted a hotly contested debate, “only girls should play with dolls,” with the majority disagreeing with the statement. In Africa, playing with dolls is traditionally female-specific.

But according to, there is some value to boys playing with dolls. Since they love babies too, it can become a wonderful teaching opportunity about perceived women's work and the opportunity they might embrace when they become fathers.

MacLennan also referenced the idea that International Women's Day, although not celebrated as extensively in Canada as in other places, is making a huge impact around the world. As people strive for improvement, you can see the power it has on the communities, she noted.

For example, the Right To Play team witnessed games for a soccer tournament in Clara Town, a suburb of Monrovia, featuring all female teams with the final to be played on International Women's Day. They were providing trophies so that "every one of those girls could feel like a champion," Hughes added.

Fortunately, girls playing soccer, or any sport for that matter, are not anomalies in Canada, as it might be in other countries. Indeed we have made advances, but there is still work to be done.

“Definitely Canada has come a long way with equality when it comes to gender equity,” said Hughes, “but look at the amount of women who are in government, the amount of women coaches that there are in Canada. There are very few."

Canada has a wealth of successful, confident and strong women who have the opportunity to connect with girls, whether on the street or are young executives, and inspire them, much in the same way that female athletes benefit from the support at the Olympics.

MacLennan agrees. "Any opportunity you have to empower young girls and engage them in something empowering would be beneficial," she said.

She emphasized that while women in Canada have a lot more opportunities than women in other parts of the world, “just being able to empower them with the choice or the belief that they can do anything" goes a long way in endorsing the spirit of the movement."

“I think we can make Canada a world leader when it comes to equality because we are far from it. We are not as good as we think we are. We need an international women’s week, not just a day," Hughes said.

This year, both athletes plan to commemorate this important day. MacLennan will be speaking — along with a number of other athletes — at the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sports and Physical Activity (CAAWS) event in Ottawa, while Hughes will be marking the day by highlighting women on Facebook who have been an inspiration to her both as a young girl and an adult.