BY NICOLE MATUSKA
They work in different parts of the world, each coming from countries with their own unique histories and traditions. And yet, the women who started the organizations highlighted below—Horn of Africa Development Initiative (Kenya), BRAC (Bangladesh), The Naz Foundation (India), and SheFighter (Jordan)—all reached the same conclusion: when adolescent girls from traditionally Muslim communities are given access to sports and development programs, they have a greater opportunity to break social stereotypes, develop leadership skills, and prevail against obstacles hindering their access to freedom and rights.
The idea of promoting team sports may sound minimal in the United States, where both boys and girls are encouraged to join sports teams from a young age, but in the areas where these organizations are working—throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia—girls and young women continue to face hurdles that inhibit their potential on a daily basis. Many of the girls who are involved in these organizations reported being subjected to risks such as early and/or forced marriage, practices like female genital mutilation, gender-based violence, lack of access to education, and restricted movement.
After engaging in programs that offered them a safe environment to play sports with their peers, many of the same girls who were once marginalized by their societies are now empowered with the confidence and experience to bring positive change to their communities and start to break the cycle of violence and disenfranchisement against women. The four programs detailed below exemplify how empowering adolescent girls and young women to be agents of change in their communities can help societies across the globe take a step closer to gender equality—every time the girls step onto the pitch, court, or into the ring.
Horn of Africa Development Initiative (HODI) is a community based organization located in a town called Marsabit, an urban oasis in northern Kenya surrounded by a vast dry desert. The town, with a population of roughly 5,000, sits on an extinct volcano. Its people make their living mostly through trade and commerce between Nairobi and Ethiopia, or rely on agriculture and a trickle of tourists looking for wildlife. Although Marsabit is only 550 km north of Nairobi, the trip can be a two-day journey that requires either hitching a ride on top of a truck or stitching together several rickety bus rides between Nairobi and other neighboring towns.
The town is a mixed bag of ethnicities and religions (Christians, Muslims and those adhering to traditional beliefs) from around Kenya and neighboring Ethiopia and Somalia. Girls are lucky if they get an opportunity to go to secondary school. Most girls get married early, become pregnant, and rarely finish their education. Their lives consist of taking care of their homes and occasional outings to buy household needs. Many experience female genital mutilation and gender-based violence before they even understand what these words mean.
HODI was created by a young female lawyer, Fatuma Adan, in 2007, after she decided not to take a lucrative post at the local judiciary and instead provide legal aid to people who cannot afford it. Quickly, Fatuma realized that there was much more she could do in her community. The organization grew to include general community development, including advocacy, education, community cohesion, and livelihood support. Soon, they were offering sports programs to local girls and young women as a way to provide for them a safe space to play sports and socialize with other girls. In their programs, players were given a safe space to discuss what it’s like to grow up as a girl in their community.
With support from StreetFootballWorld, Standard Chartered Bank and Women Win, HODI has reached over 1,000 girls in the community through football and peer education.
Khula Dida joined HODI as a peer educator in 2013. Now, 28 years old and a mother of two, Khula is a staff member with HODI and has managed to go back to school in order to start a degree course in community development.
“I was trained on life skills such as having the confidence to say no, learning to recognize and report violence, and knowing how to make a budget. In turn, I taught the same skills to thirty young girls at one school. I gained a lot of leadership skills and HODI employed me as a field officer six months later. For the first time in my life, I was earning a salary and helping my family financially. It has helped me realize that I have what it takes to achieve anything I want and to live healthy and have fun through football. HODI has been more than an employer to me, it has been a friend who has always been there to show me the way. It has made me be a very strong woman who knows what she wants and who continues to have big dreams for herself.” Khula Dida
BRAC, created in Bangladesh in 1972, it is one of the largest development organizations in the world, focusing its array of programs on poverty alleviation and reaching out to the poorest of the poor.
According to the UN Fund for International Agricultural Development, almost one-third of the population in Bangladesh lives below the poverty line, with a significant proportion living in extreme poverty. The percentages are the highest in rural areas.
Girls and young women in Bangladesh are disproportionately affected by poverty and face all sorts of obstacles to their development such as gender-based violence, exploitation in the garment industry, slave labor, sex trafficking, acid throwing, forced marriage, and early pregnancy. Many girls don’t get a chance to be adolescents, moving straight from puberty and the incredible changes that it brings to being a bride, wife and mother.
BRAC’s Adolescent Development Program aims to reach those girls. Despite its size, BRAC understands what it takes to work with local communities and spark change at a grassroots level. The program has an impressive network of youth clubs, called Kishori Clubs, throughout the country. They are spaces within each community where adolescents, both boys and girls, come together to talk about issues that affect them and learn life skills from peer mentors who lead the club meetings. Since its inception, the program has reached over 332,000 youth.
In 2013, BRAC began realizing that there was something special that happens when you give girls their own space to play sports and their own space to discuss important life issues that affect them uniquely in their communities. They launched the Goal Program, in partnership with Women Win and Standard Chartered Bank, to give girls the opportunity to play sports while learning important life skills related to their leadership, health, issues of gender-based violence and basic financial literacy. In 2015, 4,550 adolescent girls joined BRAC’s Goal program, playing netball, football, cricket and karate throughout the country.
Shahnaz, a 22-year-old football coach for BRAC, grew up as the second youngest of six sisters, living in a small house in Bogra district. She attended a Muslim religious school and her father restricted her to the home and school as she watched boys playing football in the community.
In 2012, she joined a newly formed Kishori Club in her community. Within a few months, her leadership skills soared and she was elected the peer mentor of the club. When Goal arrived to her club, she started playing sports and leading life skill sessions as a coach and peer leader. At first she says, her conservative Muslim community spoke out against her and other girls’ involvement in sports, but through the increasing support of her parents and creative community engagement strategies implemented by BRAC, Shahnaz became a local sports star, earning money as a coach and playing for local teams in the national tournament. She even had the opportunity to go on a training trip to India, her first time on a plane. She is now a second year graduate student and wants to one day become a famous footballer.
“In my early age I had no opportunity to play football, but I have become a football player and coach.” – Shahnaz
One of the first things that Kalyani Subramanyam, the Program Director at The Naz Foundation (India) Trust, mentions about their sport program is that when they first started, adolescent girls had a hard time even jumping up and down. They felt like their bodies were going to fall apart. They just weren’t used to it. They weren’t encouraged to do those things with their bodies.
Created in 1994, The Naz Foundation primarily focused on HIV/AIDS and sexual health, before expanding to adolescent girls and young women’s empowerment through sport. The sport program started as a small pilot and quickly, Kalyani realized the potential that sport combined with life skill education could have in building the leadership of girls.
Since 2006, this small pilot has grown, reaching 16,546 girls between the ages of 12 and 20 in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai.
In the beginning, the 10-month training program focused on building the capacity of adolescent girls by offering high quality netball instruction (led by female netball coaches) and weekly life skill sessions within schools and at community sites. However, The Naz Foundation went a step further. For them, 10 months wasn’t enough. They created a leadership pipeline, recruiting girls from the program as peer educators, community sport coaches and finally, senior coaches. In communities where girls not only had little access to sport, let alone the opportunity to develop their own leadership skills and find their voices, Naz gave them the chance to be leaders, earn a stipend and potentially get a job. Naz also set up local netball leagues and now hosts a national tournament. Its coaches have participated in international leadership programs and have led international trainings within India and abroad. Often, it was the first time a female from the community flew on a plane or left the country.
Mehjabeen Pathan was a quiet and shy girl. If she didn’t understand something she would ignore it and hope it went away. Her friends and peers made fun of her for this. She also came from a very traditional Muslim community in Mumbai, where girls and women were not allowed to leave the house without covering themselves if they were allowed to leave at all. Through school, she got involved in the Naz sport program, the first time she ever did physical activity besides light stretching. She loved it and her confidence grew. After several months, she was chosen as a group leader by the coaches, hoping it would increase her confidence and leadership. She started using her voice, speaking out and gained confidence to lead a small group of girls. She also excelled in netball. After 10 months, she was chosen as a Goal Champion and gained more responsibility within the program. In 2014, she joined The Naz Foundation officially as a Community Sports Coach, managing several sport leagues, leading life skill sessions and coaching netball. Her parents and community saw the incredible changes she went through and began supporting her work with Naz.
“When I entered in Goal program from that time I started learning new things. Every time, I hesitated to speak but now I feel comfortable and confident. Whatever I learned from Goal, I shared with my family, especially about menstruation, hygiene and HIV AIDS, then they felt safe to send me outside. I feel proud because my family believed in me and allowed me to do this job.” – Mehjabeen Pathan
Lina Khalifeh was a fighter. Throughout her life she trained in different martial arts such as Taekwondo, Kick-Boxing, Kung Fu and Boxing. She earned a black belt in Taekwondo and represented Jordan in international competitions. However, one thing kept bothering Lina: the violence against women she saw throughout Jordan and around the world. She struggled with the paradox of fighting in organized martial arts competitions as a representative of her country and then seeing girls and women in the same country experiencing violence in their everyday lives and lacking the ability to protect themselves.
It wasn’t until she started training girls and women in the basement of her parents’ home in Amman, Jordan, when she realized a new future as a social entrepreneur teaching girls and women the skills they needed to feel confident, strong and to defend themselves against violence.
In April 2010, she created SheFighter and opened her first all-female studio in 2012 in Amman. SheFighter is a safe space designed to empower women mentally, psychologically, and physically through self-defense and martial arts. Lina and her instructors teach classes specifically tailored for girls and women, providing them with confidence in their bodies and their strength. She supports the psychological and social dimensions of programs and initiatives that address gender-based violence in different communities that she was familiar with, but she felt there needed to be a stronger physical component to those programs. She couldn’t find it, so she started it.
Lina expanded her programs outside of her studio, partnering with local Jordanian NGOs, holding sessions in refugee centers and camps, and traveling internationally to give workshops and special classes. She started organizing self-defense classes for women with disabilities, participating in and winning several entrepreneur pitch competitions, and won various national and international awards. President Obama even mentioned her and SheFighter in a recent speech about Emerging Young Entrepreneurs Globally in 2015.
Despite all the fame and global notoriety, Lina still teaches classes at the studio when she is not travelling, and has plans to expand the studio to more cities and more countries.
Lubna (not her real name), 26 years old and newly married, had been taking classes at SheFighter for three months. One day, she was heading home and did not notice a man following her. When she got inside the elevator of her own building, the man got in and attacked her, choking her and trying to get her clothes off. She couldn’t scream, she was sweating and felt like she was going to die. And then, her training kicked in. She managed to push and shove him off of her, using techniques she learned in training, and get out of the elevator. As the man ran away, Lubna followed him and attracted a crowd of other men who started chasing him as well. They caught up to the attacker and called the police. She pressed charges and he was sent to jail for sexual harassment for 3 years.
“Stand up for yourself, even if you are afraid.” – Lubna
About the Writer: Nicole Matuska is the Learn Manager for Women Win, working on a range of projects with Women Win programme partners that include gender-based violence, economic empowerment, life skills and train-the-trainer workshops. Graduating with a journalism degree from Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, Ms. Matuska received a Fulbright scholarship in 2006 to study women’s football in Morocco and produced a 20-minute documentary as well as several photo essays. Since then, she has been working in sports development with young women across the globe, coaching a young girls’ football team in Casablanca, holding workshops and train-the-trainer sessions and organising women’s sports leadership camps.