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Changing attitudes

July 2, 2010

'We can do it' is the slogan of an organization in Kenya called Moving The Goalposts. It uses football to instill self-confidence in girls in Kenya and aims for nothing less than societal change.

MTG participants
MTG is about football, but also about girls' livesImage: DW

The sound of girls playing football and clapping wildly when they score goals is not a sound often heard in rural Kenya. But here in the Kilifi district, north of the city of Mombasa, it has become fairly common. In this region, some 3,000 girls play football.

Today, on a dusty pitch in the village of Sokoke, 22 girls are playing in a training session, half in blue bibs, half in red ones. Many are barefoot. Despite the intense heat, the girls are constantly in motion.

But these girls are learning a lot more than just how to dribble, kick and score; they are learning how to think in new ways, ways that are unusual for young women in this part of the world.

Group instruction on the soccer pitch
Group instruction on the soccer pitchImage: DW

"It is about a teenage girl realizing her goals in life, making her own decisions, including sexual decisions," Margaret Belewa, program manager of the Moving the Goalposts project, said. 

"Most of the times, those decisions are made by the parents or by the husband. How can we help her so that she can take control of her life?"

Moving the Goalposts (MTG) aims to empower girls and young women in Kilifi, one of the poorest districts in Kenya, through football.

Remaking lives

Belewa grew up in this area, where life can be hard. Water is in short supply and many families don't have enough food. Children often have to travel long distances to get to school.

If the parents can afford the school fees for secondary education, it is mostly the girls who suffer as boys always come first. Only one in five girls get a secondary education.

girls on the soccer pitch
Teaching self-confidence on the field and in lifeImage: DW

MTG is trying to change this, and staff member Lydia Kasina is an example for the project's success. The self-confident, well-educated young woman would have had a very different life without MTG. She starting participating in the football project several years ago, now MTG is helping her go to college.

"If MTG was not here in Kilifi maybe I would be married with many children," says Kasina. "But now I am more informed, I am now supporting myself and my family."

Kasina now works for MTG, coordinating its health education program and teaching teenage girls about their bodies and sex, one of the project's main goals. Girls here often get pregnant while they are still in school and the levels of HIV infection are twice as high among this group than among boys of the same age.

Our bodies, ourselves

On a playground in Sokoke, over thirty girls are moving in a circle while they sing during a peer education session. The topic is menstruation.

The song talks about how a young girl can talk to her mother about her body, and trust her to keep it secret. In this group the girls can talk about these kinds of subjects openly and without being ashamed of what they don't know.

Besides learning about their bodies, the girls are also taught how to become future leaders - something which most of them have to learn from scratch. Women in rural Kenya rarely take on leadership roles; most mayors and national politicians are men. It is a challenge to change the girls' concepts of themselves in a world dominated by men.

MTG logo
Working for change through footballImage: DW

MTG's goal is nothing less than to change Kenyan society, which is why they chose the name they did.

"Everybody asks: Why Moving the Goalposts?" Belewa said. "But here we are talking about social goalposts. How do we move the girls, the teenage girls in Kilifi to a status like any other girl in the world?"

MTG is now widely recognized, far beyond Kilifi and Kenya. The organization was even invited to take part in the "Football For Hope project" organized by the world football association FIFA, to support development programs aimed at young people. More than 30 teams of players under the age of 18 from all over the world get the chance to travel to South Africa during the World Cup. MTG is one of them.

17-year-old Sarah is on that team, and she has plans for her future once she returns. She wants to finish her education, then she would like to become a famous broadcaster so that she can pass her knowledge to the people in Kenya. Because, she says, there are still many people who don't understand that women are equal to men.

Overcoming resistance

The MTG team know a lot needs to be done before women can be treated as equal partners in Kenyan society, but they're used to overcoming resistance. At first, Kasnia says, parents did not want their daughters playing football, worrying about their wearing shorts that exposed their thighs. But things have changed.

Educational materials
The girls learn about their bodiesImage: DW

"Like this year, I had a father who came with his daughter, he wants his daughter to join our organization so that she can be involved in all that activities we are doing," she said.

In the beginning, there were only 120 girls playing football in Kilifi. Now there are more than 3,000 girls and 27 league fields they play on. Yet Margaret Belewsa hopes to reach even more girls in the future, so the changes in society will be even bigger.

"We are just working in a small part of one corner now, but in time that contribution will be felt nationally because I can imagine of the girls we are working with from Kilifi could be a future leader," she said. "That is a moment everybody will celebrate."

Authors: Julia Kuckelkorn and Josephat Kioko (jam)
Editor: Ranjitha Balasubramanyam