Following your dream is never easy and this week's guest blogger, Hana Taiji, proves just that and explains her commiment to helping transform girls lives through Girls United at Kick4Life.
I often reflect on where I would be today if football hadn’t been the significant guiding force in my life.
I was fortunate to grow up in Canada, where sport can provide truly life-changing pathways to travel, education and even a meaningful career for women. Who I am today – the values I live by, my driving purpose, the relationships I’ve built and the many opportunities that I’ve had – are directly and indirectly a result of my involvement in competitive football. Receiving support through five years of my youth club experiences to be the only female in a boy’s league, instilled in me a mission to support other women to breakdown societal barriers and inspire new visions of what women are capable of.
The game eventually brought me to Kick4Life, a world-renowned sport for social impact charity and social enterprise that has been instrumental in my own development. It is through years of involvement, in various capacities,with this organization that I have learned the true value of the game: football can provide a platform to develop whole communities, empower vulnerable populations and teach important, and sometimes life-saving, knowledge and skills.
Competitive football provided me a pathway for an individual pursuit of excellence, but for some of the most vulnerable populations around the world – adolescent girls and young women – the game and football4good methodologies can provide truly life changing pathways and possibilities for them, and even shift societal thinking of what females can achieve.
As I look forward to watching the eighth instalment of the World Cup in France, I reflect on the special ability of football to empower women. I have seen this happen in an especially interesting way in one of Kick4Life’s (K4L) new programs: Girls United.
Girls United (GU) uses football to provide adolescent girls and young women in Lesotho with education in sexual and reproductive health, gender rights and important health and well-being life skills. The project aims to promote gender equality and to break down stigma related to the role of women in society at work, at home, in relationships and on the football pitch. Girls United was co-created by a team of young women that play on Kick4Life’s Senior Women’s Team, ensuring that it is a culturally in-tune and socially and physically engaging curriculum.
I am invigorated by the potential of GU. Already, feedback from school partners and students has been overwhelmingly positive. Since I don’t get to spend much time these days in the field on programmatic delivery, I had an in-depth reflection session with three of GU's leading coaches, many of whom I used to train with in 2015, to understand their experiences and perspectives on GU and football in Lesotho. I learned two things: 1) there is so much more room in Lesotho for football to play a vital role in empowering girls; and 2) local female player role models are essential for using sport to promote gender equality.
EMPOWERING BASOTHO GIRLS THROUGH FOOTBALL
The current small scale of the Program (175 participants across 18 months) ensures maximum social impact, but there is a clear potential to expand GU to many more girls and young women in Lesotho, using football as the key tool to make important steps towards equality. Although Lesotho has ranked high in closing the gender gap – 9th out of 135 countries according to the 2011 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index – particularly related to literacy and education and increasing access to high-skilled work placements, many restrictions on access to opportunity remain for girls and young women.
In reflecting on these barriers, our experienced GU Program Manager, Maphoka Ramakoatsi (Puky), shared that in many instances, information about sexual and reproductive health and gender role possibilities are not provided in the home or at school and that sometimes girls might only have access to “cultural or traditional [beliefs]” related to the female body, abilities and role in society. In some cases, she states, some of the lessons girls learn in the home and at school “can put them at risk of either getting pregnant or getting HIV”.
Girls United focuses on promoting gender rights and creating awareness around gender-based violence(GBV). A study conducted by Gender Links in 2014 found that 86% of Basotho women willing to report experienced some form of GBV in their life-time, 62%from intimate partners (The Gender Based Violence Indicators Study Lesotho, p.8). According to the report, barriers exist at the individual, community and systemic levels for reporting because “violence is normalised and societal mores remain patriarchal” (p. 7).
Implementing GU has exposed a very difficult truth here: many of the young females we work with have experienced or witnessed GBV and have not been able to tell anyone prior to the Program. Fortunately, these sessions are providing safe spaces and peer support to understand, expose and talk through GBV-related challenges and ultimately promote group healing.
A highlight of the Program is the mixed-gender tournament, whereby the female participants invite a male peer to learn about gender rights with them and to play football together. Common feedback from the male participants has been genuine surprise that girls should be able to do similar activities to them, such as playing football or going to school. Encouragingly, the male participants also are expressing a desire to take part in the full programming and learn more about gender rights and how they can participate in preventing GBV. From this intervention alone, 78% of male participants expressed reduced acceptance of violence against women.
A powerful moment comes to mind here as Puky sums up nicely:
“On the graduation of [our first intake], the whole school was there. I mean, the whole school. And,when we told the students what we were doing, the Principal, himself, said something to the effect of, ‘I feel like Kick4Life owes us this opportunity [to deliver more programming] because now you only took 25 girls, but this issue [girls rights] does not affect just the 25 girls that you took. We as men would want to support you girls, but how are we going to support if we don’t know [how to]?’”
All three GU coaches that I spoke with shared that there was a deep and surprising hunger, on the part of female and male students, and many school administrators, to offer the programming to more girls and boys in Maseru. Considering some of the messaging in the programming could conflict with cultural and gender norms, I was thrilled that we received this feedback. Teachers and some parents have also reported improved behaviours from the participants in the classroom and at home as result of the Program.
When I asked why the coaches thought GU was resonating so strongly with girls in Maseru, they said it was “open[ing] doors” for them and the football4good methodology appears to be an engaging tool to impart important life lessons to youth who are currently not receiving them, or absorbing them, at school. To that effect, Coach Denissays: “What I have realized is that football can pass important life messages so that young people can understand more than they can in a classroom”. Sure enough, learning through movement, play and teamwork resonates with young people.
My own observations and hypothesis are that these K4L Coaches have broken down the limiting stereotypes of what a female footballer can do and be and have drawn these young people tothem and football by their role modelling.
For the record, all of the GU Coaches will be supporting their regional team, Banyana Banyana, in the upcoming World Cup. Puky made a strong case for why this aligns with her programmatic mission: “I think it’s a motivation for us if Banyana Banyana can reach that stage [World Cup Finals], because it means we can too. I always tell our players that they don’t have to look to unrealistic role models…if [the South African team] are here next to us and they reach that top level, then it says we can [also] reach there.”
Hence, I will be backing two teams that I hope will make a splash and motivate more local talent development and more young girls joining the beautiful game – Team Canada and The South African women.
All photos are kindly provided by Hana Taiji.
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