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Giving girls a voice & a choice in Marsabit

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“The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all.” — Aung San Suu Kyi

Photo: Kevin O’Donovan, Coaches Across Continents
Photo: Kevin O’Donovan, Coaches Across Continents

Each year, October 11 is recognized as the International Day of the Girl Child. This day encourages people around the world to recognize girls’ rights and the unique challenges girls face around the world. This year’s observance is focused on “Innovating for Girls’ Education.” We have seen firsthand the transformative power of soccer through incredible partners such as the Horn of Africa Development Initiative (HODI).

In 2003, Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan started HODI as a legal-aid organization to address human rights violations and community violence in her hometown, Marsabit, Kenya. Marsabit, one of the most remote and multicultural communities in Northern Kenya, is beset by challenges due to traditional cultural values and tribal conflicts, where several tribes intersect, live, learn, trade and fight.

Today, there is still 100 percent female genital mutilation of girls in Marsabit. Tribal conflicts taking place across the border in Ethiopia are carried over into Marsabit and result in thefts, shootings, rapes and other community disruptions. Conflicts arise over access to scarce water, cattle, inter-tribal marriages and religion. Forced girl child marriage and death by gunshot are common.

Photo: Kevin O’Donovan, Coaches Across Continents
Photo: Kevin O’Donovan, Coaches Across Continents

HODI trains coaches in schools and leagues to use sport to engage youth—teaching them conflict resolution skills and reducing gender-based violence. At the same time, they slowly change social norms of forced marriage of young girls. When Fatuma started HODI’s soccer programs, most of the Muslim girls in Marsabit were not allowed to participate. Fatuma received death threats for her advocacy on behalf of the displaced and underserved in her community. Slowly, the program gained acceptance, as HODI established girls’ football teams that were invited to tournaments in Nairobi and beyond.

Empowering Girls and Changing Lives through Collaboration
Into this most remote area, Coaches Across Continents (CAC), another powerful partner of ours, delivered the first 10 nearly indestructible One World Futbols (with 5,200 more on the way) and integrated Standard Chartered Bank’s proven Goal Programme, which teaches life skills to empower girls. CAC works with HODI to strengthen coaching and teaching skills in young people, engaging boys and girls together in leadership training games on the field. While respecting local culture and religious morals, CAC provides girls with new choices—to attend school, delay marriage and sexual relations and to envision different lives for themselves. Some of that cultural shift comes from the simple act of boys and girls playing together, and taking direction from female coaches and trainers.

Today, we are starting to see a more comfortable interaction between the genders developing on the field. Boys start treating girls with the mutual respect modeled in the program and in the games that reinforce the lessons. On the field, everyone is equal. Barriers start to fall away, and opportunities open.

Photo: Kevin O’Donovan, Coaches Across Continents
Photo: Kevin O’Donovan, Coaches Across Continents

Many of the Muslim girls still play soccer in their headscarves, but once they take off their long dresses to reveal soccer uniforms underneath, they play with the same competitiveness and energy you see on grass fields across America. The life-long benefit of girls’ access to sports, long ago embraced in the U.S., is proving to have an even greater impact on girls in developing countries.

Meaningful and cost-effective change comes from reaching girls in their communities and growing the community’s vision of their daughters’ futures. Playing soccer together, with the One World Futbol, these young women and men are learning life skills that they then share with others in the community. We are all seeds of change, providing young women choices to better their lives and the lives of the next generations of girls to come.

Sandra Cress serves as the Director for Africa at One World Futbol Project and is based in Nairobi, Kenya.