A win for football-playing girls in Bangladesh

Young girls strengthen their football skills and learn valuable lessons on and off the field

Girls with football
UNICEF Bangladesh/2021/Satu
07 October 2021

“There is nothing that girls cannot do. If we can demonstrate that, no girl will stay at home, they will do both – study and play sports. This can take the country forward,” stated Nayantara Monika, a 12-year-old girl and football player with the Brahmanbaria District team.

Nayantara Monika grew up in a remote village in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, in southeastern Bangladesh, where opportunities to play football were few. But a combination of skill and determination has taken her to victory in the final championship match of the UNICEF-Bangladesh Football Federation’s national talent scout for girls.

“People in my village would always ask me: ‘Why do you play football?’. They would say: ‘You are a girl. Focus on your studies, not sports. You cannot play football when you grow up because you are a girl’. But my family was always supportive,” said Nayantara Monika.

In a country where girls’ opportunities to play sports are very limited, UNICEF and the Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) joined forces to launch an ambitious nationwide football talent scout for girls aged 12 to 16 years.

“Encouraging girls to play sports is an important step towards challenging gender norms and tackling issues such as gender inequality and child marriage, which greatly harm children and societies,” said Natalie McCauley, Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF Bangladesh.

The girls’ football talent scout is a partnership between UNICEF and BFF to strengthen girls’ participation in sports. In 2021, the selected girls played district and divisional tournaments followed by a championship battle in Dhaka, the country’s capital.

Top players have the opportunity to receive further training and to eventually join the national women’s football team, acting as role models for millions of girls and boys in Bangladesh.

Impact of COVID-19

School closures and lockdown restrictions have severely limited children’s opportunities for exercising and having fun with their friends, taking a heavy toll on their physical and mental health. The football talent scout aimed to alleviate this situation by motivating children to become actively involved in sports.

“We all enjoy going to school where we can meet friends and teachers. We can study properly. Due to the lockdown, I could not go out to the school or practice football. I was very upset,” said Nayantara Monika.

“At one point during the lockdown, when I could not return to school, I even cried,” added Nayantara Monika.

She followed online classes during that time, she went on explaining, but these were not as enjoyable as in-person classes. Also, some students couldn’t access remote learning, she noted.

Girls practicing football
UNICEF Bangladesh/2021/Satu
Girls participating in a football training session, despite adverse weather conditions.

Girls’ time to shine

“Sports can completely transform people’s perceptions of girls’ potential and their role in society. Sports can be equally beneficial for girls and boys. Apart from the physical and mental health benefits, playing sports builds children’s and young people’s self-esteem, confidence and gives them a sense of self-determination,” said Natalie McCauley, Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF Bangladesh.

“We are extremely proud of this programme. We know that many girls, particularly those living in remote and hard-to-reach areas, have traditionally been cut off from sports. We hope this initiative can inspire parents and communities to promote girls’ participation in sports. The benefits are enormous and go far beyond the playing field,” said Kazi Md Salahuddin, President of the Bangladesh Football Federation.

“Now, nobody says anything bad about me playing football. Even the boys don’t bother me. Instead, they encourage me saying: ‘Try and play more, you are really good. You can go a long way in the future’,” said Nayantara Monika proudly.

A girl practicing football
UNICEF Bangladesh/2021/Satu

UNICEF wishes to express its sincere gratitude to the European Union and other partners for their generous contribution to strengthen girls’ participation in sports, support girls’ empowerment and end harmful practices, including child marriage, in Bangladesh.