In Niger, girls take their shot at a better future
A girls’ football team is helping break down social barriers, one kick at a time.
NIAMEY, Niger – Two beds, a fan, an old television set, a refrigerator. Everything 13-year-old Pascaline’s family owns is squeezed into a space smaller than some people's closet. The walls of the single-room house, which Pascaline shares with her parents, are built with adobe – sun-dried bricks made of clay and straw. The tin roof on their home rattles against the walls whenever there’s a strong gust of wind.
Pascaline lives in Lacouroussou, a poor neighborhood in Niamey, the capital of Niger. Some days, there isn’t anything to eat at home. Work is scarce, and the houses are overcrowded. When it rains, everything gets flooded.
It’s a tough place for children to grow up, but it’s particularly challenging for girls, thousands of whom have seen their childhoods cut short by marriage – Niger has the highest rate of child marriage in the world.
The contents of a backpack that Pascaline keeps under her bed offer a glimpse into the aspirations of the young Nigerien girl. For years, Pascaline has been collecting football jerseys, socks and boots, even though most of them are still too big for her to wear. She’s a fan of the Barcelona Football Club – she knows the names of all the players.
Pascaline’s mother, Biba, chuckles as her daughter talks enthusiastically about her dream of playing football in Spain or the United States. But Pascaline remains defiant: “Whoever says that football is only for boys, well my friends and I are proving them wrong.”
For Pascaline, football is about much more than just fun. When her parents had to take her out of school age eleven because they could no longer afford to pay the school fees, playing football was the only thing that kept her happy.
Henri knows as well as anyone how much his daughter loves the game. “I still remember when she received her first ball, from her uncle,” he says, as he stands outside his welding shop in Niamey. “She played football with the boys in the neighbourhood, and though they’d laugh at her, she didn’t care. She was good at it, and they started to respect that.”
Those skills didn’t just earn Pascaline the respect of her peers – they also helped get her education back on track. When a football school scouted in her neighbourhood, recruiting out-of-school girls to play for a team with the aim of getting them back into class, she studied hard for the entrance exam and was given a spot.
For the past year, three days a week, Pascaline has ridden her bike to classes at Academie Atcha.
“They gave me a bike, school materials, and a soccer kit to wear for training sessions. My life took a turn I didn’t expect,” she says smiling.
A staff member shows off the display of football jerseys and memorabilia at Academie Atcha. Since 2007, the school has been encouraging out-of-school children to attend classes by offering an extra incentive: the chance to play football. The school provides children with primary and secondary education programmes, academic and sports equipment, and food.
Pascaline’s teacher, Garba, says that the school has a good retention rate and that pupils are highly engaged with their studies. “My students come to all my classes with their homework completed,” she says. But while studying is the priority, Garba admits that the football is undoubtedly part of the appeal, something she is fine with.
“It keeps them motivated to learn,” she says. “School sports have added value for girls [because] they are the most vulnerable ones.”
In class, Pascaline is one of the most engaged students. Increasing access to education can create new opportunities for girls in Niger, who often find themselves under pressure to focus on domestic chores and to marry young.
Eighty-one per cent of women aged 20-24 with no formal education are married or in a union by the age of 18. But for girls with a secondary school level education or higher that percentage tumbles to 17 per cent.
Pascaline’s confidence extends to the football pitch, too, where she is helped by her lucky pair of boots. She saves these for game days.
Pascaline and her teammates gear up for a game in the changing room.
Academie Atcha gives girls a chance to enjoy playing sports in a safe and supportive environment, building their confidence, and helping them understand their rights.
Lawali (left), the academy's football coach, says that some people have questioned why he is bothering to train a team of girls. But he adds that such skepticism has only served to motivate him.
“The criticism gave me the courage to give all my energy to these girls. They are pure inspiration,” he says, while keeping an eye on the training session. “Whether they win or lose, they are already champions in my eyes.”
Pascaline (tapping the ball) and her teammates train together on the football pitch at Academie Atcha.
Despite the prevailing stereotypes and the social pressure these Nigerien girls are breaking down barriers every day.
UNICEF supports the Nigerien Football Federation, FENIFOOT, in organizing football competitions for the most disadvantaged girls with the aim of helping them overcome social barriers and realize their full potential.
“When girls play, when girls go to school, when girls are not deprived of their childhood because of marriage, the world wins,” Félicité Tchibindat (centre, in blue), UNICEF’s representative in Niger, said at the end of the most recent tournament.
Pascaline's team hold up a victory trophy. They qualified for the tournament final and won after a penalty shoot-out.
Young Nigerien girls remain a vulnerable, though still largely invisible group. But as more girls like Pascaline turn their dreams into reality, it’s not just the winning football teams that have something to celebrate.
For more about the International Day of the Girl 2019 click here.