By Heather Sutliff
KARACHI, Pakistan, 14 April 2011- On a scorching, early morning in Karachi, a dozen girls - some wearing shawls and burqas in the blistering heat - arrive in a large walled field, ready to practice football. Their eagerness is evident as they enthusiastically remove their burqas to reveal their practice uniforms. Hurriedly, they put on their cleats and run out to the field to meet their head coach, Sadia Sheikh.
|UNICEF correspondent Natasha De Sousa reports on Pakistani girls who are challenging gender stereotypes through sport. Watch in RealPlayer|
These girls are members of Pakistan’s first female football club, Diya, and they are ready to play.
“The football field provides girls with a place to breathe – to get away from their daily tensions, and focus on an activity that will make them confident, healthy and strong,” explained Sadia Sheikh, who founded Diya in 2003. Diya is the only female club started and managed by women.
In Pakistan, there is a general lack of support for girls who want to do more than get married and become mothers. Girls face many obstacles including poverty, lack of access to education, and cultural barriers which prohibit or restrict their freedom of movement and pursuit of their dreams.
By showing up for practice today, these girls have already triumphed. They have gained the support of their families and community. Some have even travelled alone on public transportation – often frowned upon by traditional male members of society.
|© UNICEF Pakistan/2011/De Sousa|
|17 year old Hajra used to practice football alone in her room. Now she has her eyes on a spot in the national Pakistani women’s football team.|
“It’s not just about the game. In this club, we get to mix with girls from other backgrounds, poor, rich, Christian, Muslim. We even get to play with girls from other countries. It’s very supportive, it’s a safe environment, and we support each other,” said Hajra Khan, 17.
Since Diya was founded in 2003, girls’ football clubs in Pakistan have increased to around 16 including clubs from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Pakistan now has a national female football team which was provisionally included in FIFA’s global female ranking system in 2010.
‘We can do anything’
UNICEF has found that sports programs are an excellent way to reach out to girls – to encourage education, support achievements, enable girls to challenge gender stereotypes and have a voice within their families and society. This is particularly true for adolescent girls across the developing world.
“When my father fell sick I was in class six and there wasn’t money for me to continue school along with my brothers. Because I was a strong athlete, Diya recruited me and provided me with a scholarship so that I could play sports and go to school. I am now studying in Class ten. My family only agreed to support my further education after it was free,” said Fauzia Naz, a 16-year- old footballer.
Fauzia also is a part-time coach at a private elementary school. As a coach, she is not only encouraging other young girls to participate in sports, but earns a small income to help support her mother and brothers.
|© UNICEF Pakistan/2011/De Sousa|
|Like many of her teammates, Fatima dons a burqa and shawl over her football clothes before and after practice so that she can more easily travel on public transport.|
“Just like boys, girls can become doctors, lawyers, we can do anything if we have the support. We just want to have the same opportunities,” asserted Fatima Ansari, 15.
Breaking the cycle
Although some progress in social acceptance of girls’ sports teams has been made over the last decade, huge disparities exist when compared to sport opportunities for boys and for sports activities for girls living in poor rural areas.
These same disparities exist in girls’ education. UNICEF estimates that over 100 million children of primary school age were out of school in 2008, 52 per cent of which were girls
According to UNICEF’s SOWC 2011 report, changing the cycle of poverty and gender discrimination must include significant investment in adolescents - especially girls. Improving access to education and economic opportunities will empower girls and provide them with a stronger voice in decisions about marriage, birth spacing and effective ways to raise healthy, productive children.
“Change won’t happen overnight, but I am encouraged by how these girls are skilfully navigating and overcoming social barriers and expanding opportunities for girls. Every time they show-up to practice, they graduate into another class, support other girls, or score on the field they are showing us all what is possible, and living their dreams,” said Sadia.