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Let women make a splash, even in conservative societies, says Olympian Phelps

By Beh Lih Yi

HONG KONG, Sept 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women and girls must be allowed to learn how to swim even in conservative societies, American swimming great Michael Phelps said on Friday, as he sought to make the world better through the "awesomeness" of sports.

Studies have shown women and girls are more at risk from natural disasters such as flooding because they are not taught how to swim, often due to cultural or religious taboos that discourage them from showing their bodies.

But Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time with 23 gold medals, said women and girls should be allowed to enjoy what he described as "one of the greatest sports".

"Everybody should have that right, everybody needs that right," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a media conference on the sidelines of a forum on cities in Hong Kong.

"I think it's only fair if we all have the same exact right to be able to swim if we want to swim. I believe everybody has the right to do what they want," said Phelps, who retired from swimming after the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Campaigners say a large number of disaster-hit people were girls and women, who often experience disadvantages that make them less resilient.

Women accounted for 77 percent of deaths in Indonesia's conservative province of Aceh from the 2004 tsunami, partly because more men knew how to swim or climb trees, a study by aid group Oxfam found.

Bangladesh and China both have high rates of children dying by drowning, with girls especially vulnerable, according to campaign group Teach a Girl to Swim.

Phelps, 33, has been promoting water safety and active lives especially for children through a foundation he set up using the $1 million bonus he earned from winning eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Reiterating he has no desire to come back to competitive swimming, the Olympian said he was committed to his charity work to "give kids and everybody the awesomeness of sports".

He said he has seen how children benefit from learning to swim, including better behaviour and grades in schools, and believe cities could also benefit by promoting sports as a mean to boost social wellbeing.

"There were so many powerful things we can teach through sports," he said.

"If more kids are active in sports and have the opportunity to be active in sports, cities should become better. Everybody should be able to play and get along together a little better."

Phelps was in Hong Kong for the Philanthropy for Better Cities Forum, a two-day conference hosted by the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust with an aim to create more liveable cities.

(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)