Take a moment to imagine a football game. You’re probably thinking about a lush green pitch, or a stadium full of roaring fans. Maybe you’re thinking about David Beckham or Lionel Messi. But the “beautiful game” has many other faces.
Meet 18-year-old Scovia Akello. Growing up in Gulu, northern Uganda, amid the brutality unleashed by rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Akello has witnessed sexual slavery, extreme violence, poverty and disease. She has also witnessed hundreds of football games and is known in her village for being a “dangerous” striker.
Akello is one of 400 girls who have joined football charity Girls Kick It since it started in 2006. “Soccer means everything to us,” she says.
The conflict in northern Uganda lasted more than 23 years; during this time the LRA is believed to have killed in excess of 15,000 people and displaced approximately two million others. Many women and girls were abducted from their homes and forced to serve as sex slaves.
“Some of the girls were severely traumatised by their abduction, both physically and emotionally,” says Girls Kick It founder, Anna Phillips.
Taking inspiration from a women’s football charity in Afghanistan, 28-year-old Phillips decided to start her own programme in the war-torn country, with the help of Global Youth Partnership for Africa. Working with Ugandan women in the Gulu district, Girls Kick It became the first sports organisation in Uganda designed exclusively for young women.
“I passionately believe that sport can help develop self-esteem and self-confidence,” says Phillips, a Fulbright scholar with a background in human rights. Phillips thinks sport is a powerful tool for rehabilitation, primarily because it creates a “safe space”, allowing participants to take risks.
“It’s okay to lose in sport – you practice, you learn. You get support from your team and your coach,” she explains.
“In life we fear failure and taking risks. Learning to take risks and working towards goals in the sports world allows us to do the same in the real world.”
Although football alone might not be enough to repair the damage caused by war, Phillips says it’s a “good start”.
“When you’re working in communities where funding isn’t available, then it’s a great foundation,” she says.
From its simple beginnings as a female football team, Girls Kick It has grown into a sophisticated development programme. They now have a three-pronged approach: football practice, life skills (such as the prevention of HIV/AIDS and domestic violence) and economic training.
“We have these girls who are great soccer players, they’re empowered with knowledge, and now we want to give them real economic opportunities, too, so that they can change their communities,” Phillips explains.
The results have been astounding. “The girls have shown tremendous growth,” says Phillips. “They have demonstrated new-found confidence, teamwork and the belief that they have control of their futures.”
Girls such as Scovia Akello have thrived throughout their participation in Girls Kick It. Akello’s talent on the pitch earned her a sports scholarship, giving her access to a free education.
“I am currently waiting for my exam results and hope to continue my studies at college,” she says.
Phillips hopes that one day Girls
Kick It will be self-sufficient and no longer need financial assistance from external donors.
“Each team will have its own
micro-enterprise, such as bakeries and poultry farming, that will fund the coaching, tournaments and equipment,” she explains.
An unexpected side effect of the programme has been the support shown by men and boys in the communities, many of whom have taken over childcare during Girls Kick It tournaments.
Phillips believes the programme has created a neutral space for men and women to communicate in a different way. “Men are very supportive of women playing soccer, it is not culturally taboo,” she says.
One of the key goals of Girls Kick It is to give women an active voice in decision-making and development. “It is our continued hope that the girls and women who participate in this programme take a long-term leadership role in their community and become advocates for changing the development paradigm in northern Uganda,” says Phillips.
“What do girls get out of playing soccer?” is a question Phillips is frequently asked. She says aside from a boost in self-confidence, rehabilitation, overcoming trauma, and the chance to win scholarships, “we give them hope”.
The beautiful game doesn’t get much better than that.
To support Girls Kick It or make a donation, visit girlskickit.org.
The Homeless World Cup
The Homeless World Cup supports grassroots football programmes through a network of 70 international partners, such as Girls Kick It. Its goal is to create a positive impact on the lives of homeless and excluded people around the world.
The annual tournament, which unites teams of homeless people from around the globe, is a celebration of its work.
“Soccer is powerful because it’s simple,” says Mel Young, president of the Homeless World Cup.
“It’s a round ball and you
just have to kick it. You can play it anywhere; in a field with marked lines, in the street, in your own backyard.”
Young says football acts as an international language between the players. “You have this ball and everyone understands it. Even when players don’t speak the same language, they can still play soccer together.”
For Young, “It’s all about the players. They all have stories about where they have been, and what has happened to them,” he explains. “And then they find themselves singing the national anthem of their country. It’s incredible.”
The 12th Homeless World Cup will take place in Santiago, Chile, in October 2014.