Kicking their way to empowerment

Girls play beach football. Can football help build an ecosystem for girls to pursue their dreams? Photo by: Francois Le Minh / CC BY-NC-ND

Fans across the globe will be tuned into the #Euro2016 final this Sunday between Portugal and France. Yet in many of these same places, female footballers are finding a difficult time getting support. Football is considered a “man’s sport,” demonstrating athleticism, virility, strength and power. These perceptions are grounded in norms and societies, but also in historical definitions of masculinity and femininity. And yet sport may be just the place to start bringing about change.

For us at CREA, football has served as both an entry point and strategy to initiate discussions around gender and sexuality. Our football for change program, “It’s My Body,” implemented in three states in India, takes a rights-based approach, equipping girls with knowledge and understanding about their bodies, health, and lives.

As girls play on the sports field, gradually gender norms in their household also begin to shift. Sport requires girls to dress differently than their usual attire and requires them to be mobile. Clothing and mobility are two areas where girls usually do not have much say and the social norms are quite strict.

In our program, girls wear a sports kit comprising of track pants and T-shirts, as opposed to their usual loose pants tied with drawstrings, knee length shirt and a stole — clothes that do not accentuate their bodies. Putting on a sports kit requires girls to overcome their own inhibitions and sparks conversations at home about their dress. This is followed by another question, often asked by the girls’ parents, about their daughters’ mobility — how they travel to and from the playground. Up until that moment, most girls have been chaperoned everywhere they go.

These questions give the girls an opportunity to present their opinions and act on them. Some choose to negotiate and openly wear their sports kit. Others carry a change of clothes, dressing in the sports kit only on the playground. In some instances, female facilitators pick up girls from home and drop them. In most cases, girls become each other’s support systems to get to and from the playing field. These are small but incremental steps that the girls take toward realizing their individuality and their agency.

Football for change, as a continuing strategy, helps girls to build positive self-image, realize their self-worth, and discover and affirm their personhood.

Bobbi, a young teenager shared her experiences of facing society’s censure for being on the heavier side, wearing clothes like boys and for talking to boys. When she went on to play football, people ridiculed her because of her body weight. “But I showed them,” said Bobbi with a sense of quiet pride. “By playing football I have learnt so much about my body and my rights,” The girls’ positivity changes the relationship with their own bodies. Most girls tell us that earlier they were not aware or appreciative about their bodies, but now they have begun to take better care of themselves.

Is this growing sense of self awareness sufficient to delay marriages and to exercise greater control over one’s bodies and rights? Actually this is the tipping point. In the girls group, we organize discussions around sexual and reproductive health and rights, gender, bodily autonomy and integrity. Participants get to share their experiences and hear from other girls from diverse socio-economic, religious and cultural backgrounds. It builds and fosters strong peer-to-peer networks. They often discover similar experiences of being discriminated against at home, which contributes to fostering of friendships based on trust, support and solidarity.

The girls in the group support and are supported by each other; they come together to initiate, influence and execute collective action. When one of the girls was being pressurised by her parents to get married, she reached out to other girls in the group to intervene. The girls group was able to persuade the parents to delay her marriage. Besides delaying marriage, the girls and their collectives have also shown leadership in the community by tackling issues that the village is affected by. In one instance, they were able to mobilize the village community to come together and talk about solutions to the acute water shortage in their village. The girls have approached local government functionaries to find solutions. Girls who did not have voice in their own families are now leading the demand for services in the village.

Our program has succeeded in creating safe spaces for the girls to come together and discover common grounds. Conversations around sexuality, consent, and choice, among others, have helped girls to push beyond deeply ingrained discomforts and taboos around body and sexuality. Interventions at various levels in the community, from partner organizations, to parents, to health service providers, to local governance representatives, have helped create an enabling environment.

The female facilitators who work with the girls are trained in sport as well as comprehensive sexuality. Their personal journeys provide positive roles model for the girls.

Girls playing football go through a continuum of change, beginning from self realization to negotiating for personal choices, and eventually shifting social norms. The evolution is evident in girls’ lives in their continuing studies to pursuing vocational skills to finding employment, things they may not have been able to achieve until now. All this leads cumulatively to delaying marriage, among other outcomes.

For more Devex coverage of the role of young people in global development, visit Focus On: Youth.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Amelia Andrews

    Amelia Andrews is a development communications professional who has worked at local, national and South Asian contexts. She has worked on issues ranging from women’s empowerment through education, health and financial inclusion to sexual and reproductive health and rights. She currently heads communications at CREA, a feminist organisation based in the global south taking an intersectional approach to women’s rights.