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Meet Free to Run

How adventure sports and marathon training are empowering women disproportionaltely affected by conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan

October 30, 2020

From October 26 to November 6, we are highlighting the stories and work of our 2020 Beyond Sport Global Awards Shortlisters who are using sport to promote peaceful and inclusive societies. Free to Run is one of them. Learn more about their Life Skills through Sports program and the incredible impact they are having on the young women they work with. 

“Women’s invisibility in society is a sympotom of violence, but it’s also a cause,” Taylor Smith, Executive Director of Free to Run said.  

That’s why at Free to Run, a sport-for-development non-profit founded in 2014, they believe that the free, full and equal participation of all women and girls are fundamental freedoms key to resolving conflict and promoting peace.

You cannot have gender equality without peace or peace without gender equality.

Free to Run uses adventure sports to develop female leaders in areas of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. Through their programs, they increase opportunities for marginalized women and girls, ages 15-25, to engage in public life, using sport as a tool for women empowerment and education.

Conflict and violence have a devastating impact on societies, but women are disproportionately affected and the ways in which their rights are restricted are often overlooked. Afghanistan and Iraq rank among the lowest countries in the world for gender equality in terms of educational opportunities, life expectancy, health, human rights and access to justice for women.

By focusing on the physical, emotional and social well-being of their participants, they develop the women they work with into community leaders to be a force for change, challenge the traditional role of women and girls and bring people together across cultural, ethnic and religious lines.

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At Free to Run, they believe they have a special tool to help them achieve those goals: adventure sports and marathon running. 

“It’s both individual and communal,” Taylor said on what makes running unique. “You have all of your own self talk, the mental mountains that you have to overcome, but it also create a tight-knit community. It builds family.”

The Free to Run process starts by opening a dialogue with schools, parents, camp management and communities about their program and the activities they offer. We then create safe spaces for women and girls to be outside, active and visible where participants meet in teams 3-5 times per week and engage in sports and leadership activities. 

Alumni lead those lessons in schools in Afghanistan and in refugee and displacement camps in Iraq. Participants volunteer monthly in their communities and actively contribute to local projects, which further strengthens community support and promotes the inclusion of girls and women in public life.

Just last year, Free to Run signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Education that allows them to access any local high school for after school programming throughout Afghanistan and they are exploring a similar agreement in Iraq.

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Annually, Free to Run serves 875 participants, ages 15 - 25 years old, across rural and urban Afghanistan and Iraq. Their direct beneficiaries are from diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, including Hazara, Tajik, Pashtun, Sayed, Uzbek, Qezilbash, Arab, Kurd and Turkmen ethnicities. The programming offers a unique opportunity to address peacebuilding needs in a way that includes girls’ and womens’ voices as part of the solution.

The magic of the programming is how it brings together those girls that Taylor remarks, “otherwise would not be friends” and empowers them as a collective. 

Due to the long-lasting impacts of endless conflicts in both countries, 90% of their participants grew up experiencing trauma in the form of physical injury from war, gender-based violence or lack of stability. 

This exposure speaks to the continued need for, and relevance of, Free to Run’s interventions. Beyond direct beneficiaries, they work to engage and positively change communities through the organization of public events, official races, and volunteer work.








Through such activities, advocacy work with authorities, and support of key local partners, communities and families of their participants indirectly benefit from seeing women and girls act as ‘change agents’. Those empowered change agents then contribute to the ending of insecurity and violence and challenge the traditional role by standing up for their rights and the rights of others.

There is no better example of one such change agent than Shaimaa. A 23-year-old Free to Run member in Iraq, Shaimaa and her family fled ISIS in 2014, taking up residence in an IDP camp where she discovered Free to Run in 2018. 

She began as a participant and graduated to the role of Community Development Leader (CDL) in 2019. As a CDL, Shaimaa led the next cohort in her camp. Today, she is a coach, leading a team of Syrian refugee girls. 

“Shaimaa continues to promote peace and social justice through our programmes,” Taylor said, “and ripple those Free to Run values outwards.”

Free to Run is a 2020 Beyond Sport Global Awards Shortlister in the Sport for Peace and Social Justice category. Learn more about the rest of this year’s Shortlist and follow their journeys at



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