Football Teams Aim To Educate And Empower Female Athletes

In a conservative province of Kenya, a football team Unicef organized six years ago to encourage girls to attend HIV education classes has spawned thousands of teams for women.

We mentioned earlier that efforts to increase the number of girls' football teams in Uganda are being met with resistance. Many traditionalists in the neighboring country of Kenya were also hostile to the idea when Unicef launched the Ukunda Queens football team in the Islamic province of Kwale, according to The Times of London. "Starting a girls' football league seemed like a crazy idea at first," said Roselyn Mutemi-Wangahu, the team's coordinator, "We had to reach those girls. They don't stay in school or go to organised groups. Their parents keep them at home," she explained. "We had to bring them together to raise their confidence and teach them about HIV. Here, the one thing that brings everyone together is soccer."

Girls in Kwale have some of the lowest levels of education in Kenya, and traditional views toward women are especially oppressive there. In the province, girls are not allowed to speak to their fathers directly, may be sent back to their parents if they refuse to have sex with their husband, and are often beaten. Teenage girls are seven times more likely to contract HIV than boys of the same age, and the "treatments" make matters even worse. Witchdoctors in Kwale encourage people to have sex with HIV-infected patients, and some believe girls should sleep with their father and uncles to "make them fat and strong" and "open the door to other men."

Initially locals were hostile to the idea of a girls' football league. Anisa Kombo, 23, who is on the Ukunda Queens said that older men used to harass them during their early matches. She said:

When they saw us playing they cursed us. Some Muslim leaders said that we were being led into prostitution. Other boys and girls called us lesbians. Here the idea is that the woman stays in the kitchen. A girl may never set foot in school and can be married off at 12.

But eventually, people started to accept the league because the girls on the team were receiving HIV/AIDS education. A local man said, "According to our traditions, what they are doing is wrong but if it's about HIV, it's acceptable."

After the foundation of the Ukunda Queens, football league district chairmen Mohamed Said Mwakulola says he started going door to door trying to persuade more parents to let their daughters join teams. "It took three years, one step at a time," he says, explaining that in some cases it took more than a year to build a full team. The league, which is part of Unicef's Kick Aids project, has expanded, and now there are thousands of women's teams in Kenya. "There has been a change in our community in letting the girls play football - and it gives me hope," said Mwakulola.

Kenyan Women United In Freedom And Football [The Times of London]

Earlier: Kicking Old Habits