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Safer Communities through Soccer: How Khayelitsha's First Girls Soccer Team is Changing the Game in South Africa

Women and girls in Khayelitsha, South Africa experience gender inequality, specifically the threat of sexual violence, every day. These threats limit their freedom as equal citizens to enjoy the urban environment and to exercise their rights to education, work, recreation, collective organization and participation in political life. In order to empower girls to reclaim those public spaces, Grassroot Soccer (GRS) will leverage its presence in the Khayelitsha soccer community and its experience with gender-focused programs to scale-up organized soccer leagues for girls.

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Grassroot Soccer proposes to build and strengthen non-elite soccer programs for girls in Khayelitsha, South Africa, with the combined aim of offering girls new venues in which to gather and breaking down restrictive gender norms. Specifically, the proposed project will seek to: 1) strengthen leadership, coaching, and citizenship capacity among female soccer players; 2) empower female soccer players to recruit younger girls to play soccer; 3) scale up organized all-female soccer leagues; and, 4) run the soccer leagues in visible public spaces.
Grassroot Soccer is uniquely positioned to lead this effort. In 2011, GRS staff formed the first girls soccer team in Khayelitsha. The team, called RV United, engaged and recruited female soccer players aged 15 to 23 using two GRS sources: participants involved in GRS’s girls-only soccer-based HIV education program, and GRS’s local female HIV prevention peer educators. This combination created a unique mixture of female players and role-models. Initially, players were hesitant to play publicly as boys ridiculed and teased them as they played. However, after 6 months of public trainings and participation in tournaments, the attitudes of boys and girls in Khayelitsha began to visibly shift. Boys became true fans and supporters of the team, traveling to games and tracking players’ statistics.
Soon after the formation of the team, the influence of RV United and its players on the broader community—and younger girls in particular—grew. A group of girls aged 8-13 approached RV United and lobbied to form a team for younger players.  Additionally, adolescent girls from neighboring areas started contacting RV United coaches, pleading for transport money so that they could travel 45-minutes every day to play. RV United began as a group of 15 girls developing their basic soccer skills; within a year, it expanded to three full-sized teams with two age divisions. The rapid growth of RV United emerged in response to a desire of girls in the community to belong to a team and play soccer. One player said that on RV United, “We help each other, we don’t judge each other. We’re just a big family.” By promoting girls’ access to public spaces, RV United started a movement. RV United girls soccer club was challenging gender norms and expectations in Khayelitsha, and the girls were speaking up for their right to access public spaces and have a public voice in a language everyone could understand: soccer.
Building on the work of RV United, GRS will develop an evidence-based leadership, coaching, and citizenship programme for RV United players and coaches. The programme will enable RV United to recruit girls into structured soccer leagues by developing communication materials and strengthening their communication skills. GRS will also formalize RV United as a Soccer Club for high performing girls.  The RV United Soccer Club will serve as a community structure through which women and girls advocate for gender equality and form a constituency that gains access to public sporting facilities for girls’ soccer leagues. Leagues follow a normal soccer format but include additional life skills and awareness raising activities, with a focus on social cohesion among women and girls. Through stakeholder engagement and public soccer leagues and events, RV United will create demand for girls’ soccer in different communities, and organize leagues in public spaces in those communities in response.  The leagues will challenge gender norms and expectations as well as ensure these public spaces are safe environments for women and girls. The Football for Hope Center in Khayelitsha, run by Grassroot Soccer, will serve as a public meeting point for players and teams.
As a significant number of girls begin to participate in sports and as female athletes gain public recognition, girls acquire new mentors and community affiliations, and will begin to more openly and comfortably participate in community spaces. Girls’ participation can begin to change community norms about their roles and capacities. In this way, sports can be the catalyst for the transformation of social norms.
By continuously claiming public urban spaces, RV United girls became more confident soccer players, and the surrounding community became more normalized and supportive to the concept of a girls soccer club. Due to community-driven growth of RV United and feedback from players, we believe this idea can be scaled up to other sub-communities in Khayelitsha and the surrounding townships. We want to develop an evidence-based programme and model that empowers women and girls to come together around soccer, advocates for access to public spaces, works with community stakeholders to promote gender equality, and promotes violence-free communities. 

Explain your idea in one sentence.

Empowering women and girls to reclaim public spaces for organized female soccer leagues in South Africa.

What is the need you are trying to solve?

Every day in South Africa, women and girls face the threat of sexual harassment and violence in public spaces. Among girls 12-17, South Africa has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world, with more than a third of girls experiencing sexual violence before the age of 18. Violence against women and girls is shaped by deeply embedded cultural norms of violence, sexism, negative attitudes and beliefs about women and girls, and unequal power relations. Such abuses restrict women’s freedom as equal citizens to enjoy the urban environment and to exercise their rights to education, work, recreation, collective organization and participation in political life. Khayelitsha is a large township on the outskirts of Cape Town. Khayelitsha has one of the highest population densities in South Africa with an estimated 200,000 families in an area of six square kilometers. Since 1994, several billion rand have been invested in infrastructure development and the provision of ‘essential service requirements’ established in South African law, which include easy access to electricity, toilets, and water. This infrastructure development, however, has not meant improvements to safety or gender equality. In 2013, baseline results from a three-year Grassroot Soccer study in Khayelitsha found that over 30% of grade 9 female learners (avg. age 15.5) reported having already experienced violence. There is an urgent need for the development of a comprehensive approach towards addressing both situational and social factors of violence against women and girls. Gender inequality is highlighted in the domain of youth participation in sport, which showcases gender disparities in both opportunity and expectations. During adolescence, boys begin to enjoy more privileges; they gain more autonomy, mobility, and social opportunities—including participation in sports—than girls. Public sporting facilities and other public spaces where citizens can go for recreation and sport too often become the domain of men and boys. Restructuring social opportunities for women and girls benefits individuals as well as the greater community. Building safe, nonjudgmental environments for women and girls to play soccer can challenge family members and peers to reflect on their own values that limit the rights of girls and women. Team sports can also strengthen the social support network needed for girls to take action and sustain change while also challenging them to think about their own identity.

Who will benefit from this idea and how would you monitor its success?

Over 1,200 girls ages 10 to 25 in Khayelitsha and the surrounding communities will benefit directly from the initial implementation of this idea, but the aim is to develop a replicable model that could benefit millions of women and girls around the world. GRS will monitor the effectiveness of this idea using a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods that build on its existing monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system. GRS will measure success across a number of outcomes, capturing changes among girls and communities on increased participation in soccer, improved gender equitable attitudes, improved feelings of safety, and reduced experiences of violence. These indicators will be captured using self-reported pre-and-post intervention questionnaires as well as secondary data from the South African Police Services (SAPS), which will allow GRS to monitor success through reported cases of violence at the community level.

Who would be best equipped to implement this idea in the real world? You? Your organisation? Another organisation or entity?

Grassroot Soccer is best equipped to implement this idea. GRS already works in high-risk urban areas in South Africa, and specializes in implementing youth-targeted sports-based HIV prevention programs. GRS’s girls-only program, SKILLZ Street, has been implemented in South Africa since 2010, and the organization has already graduated over 4,000 at-risk adolescent girls through the program. Evaluations of SKILLZ Street have shown that the program has a positive effect on adolescent girls’ reported attitudes and facilitates access to and uptake of HIV Counseling and Testing (HCT). SKILLZ Street has also been recognized nationally and internationally: the program won the 2013 Impumelelo Social Innovations Platinum Award and was also named to the Women Deliver 50 list as one of the Top 10 Educational Initiatives that deliver for girls and women worldwide. Additionally, GRS has already built strong partnerships with local soccer leagues and South African Football Association (SAFA) youth development leagues. Due to the strong recruitment and programmatic structure in place with GRS, the addition of a girls soccer development program will be a viable scale-up that GRS is capable of leading.

Where should this idea be implemented?

The idea will be implemented in Khayelitsha, South Africa, and surrounding communities.

How might you prototype this idea and test some of the assumptions behind it?

The prototype of this idea will build off existent work with RV United, while adding new evidence-based programming around leadership development, soccer coaching, and safety. The establishment of new leagues will work in a stepwise and cumulative manner that allows GRS to test assumptions and incorporate new insights in stages as the idea develops. Each new team, league, public space, and community is an opportunity to test assumptions in a slightly different context, allowing GRS to explore why, how, and under which circumstances the idea creates change.
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Attachments (3)


Findings on the prevalence and predictors of rape in South Africa.

SA AIDS Conference 2013_GOAL Trial Baseline.pdf

Baseline findings from the GOAL Trial, presenting data collected from 4,485 Grade 9 learners.

IAC Poster_Skillz Street.pdf

A study exploring the effect of Grassroot Soccer’s SKILLZ Street program on at-risk South African girls’ self-confidence, HIV-related knowledge, and HIV counseling and testing (HCT) uptake.


Join the conversation:

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I love seeing these organizations grow all over the world. We are incorporating a girls' rugby association into our pilot project for Voice, and here in the US, there is a program called Girls on the Run. This program teaches the girls healthy body image, self esteem, and combines it with exercise and teamwork. We would like to strive toward adding elements of this (positive self image) to the rugby association as well. Good work!

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What I like about this idea is that it breaks gender norms by taking a traditionally male-dominated activity, soccer/football, and claiming it for women and girls too. The fact that they then become visible in the community helps not only to reclaim space, but to inspire both young girls and boys to think differently about gender roles.