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Commanding near universal appeal, football has become a common language for millions of people, and the FIFA World Cup is now the most-watched sporting event in history. For the first time ever, because of a strategic alliance between UNICEF and FIFA, the world football governing body, the 2002 World Cup was dedicated to children. June 19 and 20 were designated as ‘Say Yes for Children World Football Days’ to raise awareness of children’s issues through football-related activities. At every game, children wearing UNICEF’s ‘Say Yes for Children’ T-shirts led the players onto the field. Young people were featured in every World Cup event, and an online auction of football memorabilia held during the matches raised money for UNICEF. More than 1 billion people watched the games, putting children’s rights front and centre.
Football’s appeal is certainly not limited to adults. Even in the most dire circumstances, children around the world play wherever they can – in alleyways, refugee camps and war zones. Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes “the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities….” Yet far fewer girls than boys are to be found on the football fields – or on any sports field, for that matter.
The team kicking up the red dust on a grassless pitch in Mathare, Kenya, is not a group of boys emulating their superstar heroes but of girls, blazing a trail for female participation in the world’s most popular sport. The Mathare shanty town is a collection of ramshackle, mud-walled buildings that sprawls along the steep bank of a garbage-choked river, a few kilometres north-east of Nairobi. Paid work is in short supply – domestic labour in middle-income Nairobi homes, perhaps, or casual labour in the local quarries – and most people depend on selling food or other items on the street. Many women are forced to sell sex to survive. In conditions like these, organized leisure activities are few and far between.
In 1987, the only football played in Mathare was with balls cobbled together out of string and scavenged pieces of plastic. But that year, thanks to an initiative by Canadian development worker Bob Munro, real footballs started to appear as the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) was formed. From the outset MYSA linked sport with the environment – young people organized themselves not only into football teams and leagues but also into garbage clean-up squads.
MYSA’s growth was tremendous, indicating how desperately the programme was needed. Today, MYSA sponsors hundreds of football teams. In addition, it offers educational scholarships, runs an extensive and much-needed HIV/AIDS education programme, a photography project, as well as numerous other community-service initiatives.
The first girls’ football teams were introduced in 1992 after MYSA boys and managers witnessed girls’ matches for the first time during a trip to Norway. Extending opportunities to girls was no simple matter,however, requiring the organization to grapple with entrenched traditional attitudes towards gender roles. Gaining parental approval for the girls to participate was infinitely more difficult than it had been for the boys. Many parents felt strongly, for example, that football should not interfere with girls’ numerous responsibilities in the home – and both food preparation and care of younger siblings are extremely time-consuming. They also insisted that their daughters be home before dark, aware that safety is a much more serious issue for girls than for boys.
Mothers’ reactions to their daughters’ participation have generally been positive, and the girls’ opportunity to go on tour to Norway to play in the Youth Cup – where the under-14-year-olds won their age championship – has also helped overcome the determined objections of some fathers. “When I started playing for MYSA,” says one 15-year-old girl, “my father would say that there is no football for girls and he would beat me up. So whenever I wanted to go and play, my mother would cover up for me by saying that she had sent me somewhere. Then when I went to Norway he started liking it.” 1
The struggle to ensure girls their right to play and to enjoy the benefits of participating in team sports is being waged with varying degrees of success around the world. In the United States, the current world champions in women’s soccer, the number of girls playing the game in high school increased by 112 per cent in the 1990s,2 and a professional women’s soccer league was established in 2000. US football superstar Brandi Chastain is a role model for millions of girls worldwide. “Football gives girls the ability to be leaders and improves their self-esteem,” she says. “They learn that they can be leaders, be powerful and strong and that those are perfectly fine qualities for a woman. They learn to explore themselves through football.”
Girls who participate in sports tend to be healthier – emotionally and physically – and less likely to smoke or abuse drugs or alcohol. There may also be a link between decreased incidences of breast cancer and osteoporosis in women who have been physically active throughout their lives. In addition, adolescent girls who take part in sports tend to delay becoming sexually active until later in life.3 This my in part be because participation in sports encourages adolescent girls to develop a sense of ownership of and strength in their own bodies instead of seeing them simply as a sexual resource for men. “Before playing football I was fearful,” said one girl, ”now I am not because I am used to mixing with people and I know what is good and what is bad.” Through football, offered another young Kenyan player, “I have learned how to have my own principles and not be blown and tossed around by the wind.”4
1. Brady, Martha, and Arjmand
Banu Khan, Letting Girls Play: The Mathare Youth Sports Association’s
football program for girls, Population Council, New York, 2002, p. 14.
2. Women’s Sports Foundation, Women’s Sports & Fitness Facts & Statistics, p. 11.
3. Sabo, Donald et al., The Women’s Sports Foundation Report: Sport and teen pregnancy, New York, 1998.
4. Brady and Khan, op. cit.