At the conclusion of his emotive visit to our country last year, US President Barack Obama called on Kenyans to reverse discrimination against girls and women, and reject the specious argument that this behaviour is acceptable just because it is deeply embedded in our culture.
In response to Obama’s call and in line with the International Women’s Day theme of committing to actions that accelerates gender parity, not only to improve the daily lives of half our population, but also, as Obama reminded us, to enhance Kenya’s competitive strength in a globalised economy – for the benefit of both men and women.
As the director at Moving the Goalposts (MTG), an organisation that promotes football for girls, I was delighted at the president’s use of a sports metaphor to drive home his message about girls´ and women’s rights: “Imagine if you have a team and don’t let half of the team play. That’s stupid. That makes no sense.”
For me and my colleagues at MTG, however, sport is more than an apt metaphor; it is the practical means by which thousands of girls are today breaking down barriers to the realisation of their potential. Like all sports, football is a miniature version of the real world, which is demanding and competitive.
But unlike other sports, it is accessible to nearly everyone. So, what better way for large numbers of girls to learn about leadership, teamwork, and discipline in their daily lives? And what better entry point for introducing them to other skills and knowledge that can enrich their lives and the lives of whole families and communities?
As a lawyer and advocate for justice, I’m well aware that political and legal action are important tools for combating the violation of girls’ and women’s rights. But I’ve also found that better policies and laws mean little without individual initiative supported by effective grassroots action.
In fact, it was my frustration with the process of seeking legal redress for victims of sexual violence that ultimately led me to this conclusion. What I learned from my work with MTG is that we can make discrimination less likely in the first place by helping girls become less vulnerable as well as more resourceful and resilient – qualities that are necessary for success in sport and life.
The stories of two girls who have benefited from the work of MTG illustrate exactly what I mean. Esse Mbeyu Akida, one of the first girls to join us in 2002, now plays with the Kenyan women’s national football team (the Harambee Starlets) and is a student at Kenya Methodist University. MTG helped her develop not only the superb football skills that she displayed early on but the leadership and life skills that she relies on daily to meet the challenges of professional and educational success.
Fatuma Kahindi has surmounted obstacles of a different sort, becoming a skilled mechanic and proprietor of a motorcycle parts business.
Ironically, she achieved entrepreneurial success in a realm dominated by men with the help of a man, who offered her an apprenticeship through an MTG project whose name in Swahili, Nielimishe Nijisaidie means “Educate me, so I can help myself.” Initially sceptical that Fatuma could make it, her mentor changed his mind when he saw how determined she was to learn.
Most of the other approximately 6,000 girls who participate in MTG are following a similar trajectory that begins with active participation in football, leads to the development of leadership skills and knowledge about reproductive health and HIV/Aids prevention in connection with football, and culminates in new educational and economic opportunities.
I think it´s fair to say that MTG has offered proof of concept for the potential of sports as a catalyst for women´s advancement in East Africa. The next logical step is to position sports for development more strategically in the forefront of our national development agenda. Two things can be done now to make this happen:
First, we need to revise the mandate of the Registrar of Sports, Rose Wasike, so that she has jurisdiction over the registration of organisations engaged in sports for development, thus ensuring that they can be recognised under the law. Second, we need to help these organisations become more effective and link them with development agencies that can widen their impact.
As a lawyer, I’ve witnessed enough mistreatment of girls and women to leave anyone feeling disheartened. But as MTG’s leader, I´ve seen ample evidence that the best antidote for this negative culture of discrimination is the positive culture of sport.
Rachel Muthoga is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and the executive director of Moving the Goalposts Kilifi, a sport and development project established in 2001 that works with girls and young women in Kilifi and Kwale counties