When Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan, founder of the Horn of Africa Development Initiative, organized her first girls’ soccer tournament in northern Kenya in 2008, just 12 girls competed due to a wave of resistance from residents who cursed the girls and threw stones at Adan for her audacity. But Adan persisted, and as parents gradually warmed to the notion of women being allowed to take part in sports, the enthusiasm and enjoyment of the girls who competed spurred greater and greater participation. Ten years later, more than 1,600 girls have played in her tournaments — and also engaged in group discussions on child marriage and female genital mutilation between matches. Soccer, Adan told The BBC, was proving to be one of the “most powerful tools” for women’s empowerment in the region.
“We are currently in 152 villages. There are so many others that are out of our program, but there are others who hear the stories … and they start asking like, ‘Why don’t we also start doing this? Why are we marrying off our girls?’” Adan explained. “We have broken the silence. Before it was a cool thing for a 13-year-old, 12-year-old girl to be married. Today if you marry off a 13-year-old girl, the girls in her class will complain. And not just the girls, the boys also.”
As an example, she pointed to 14-year-old Fatuma Gufu, who said that her love of the sport helped her find the confidence to pursue schooling instead of marrying young like her mother, who herself was married before even turning 14.
“Look at Fatuma Gufu, look at where she came from,” said Adan. “A really humble background. Everything would have been a barrier for her. She wants to be the governor of Marsabit county in future.”
“Football changed me. I was so shy,” the 14-year-old added. “I want to continue playing. Even if not, I will campaign … for girls to continue.”
Gufu’s mother, Halima Salim, said she was thankful that her daughter had access to the opportunities that were denied to her when she was young.
“I don’t want to sell her,” said Salim. I myself didn’t go to school and that’s why I’m lagging behind other people. I want her to be educated since I missed that opportunity. Then she can help me around once she is empowered.”
Watch The BBC’s coverage of the story below.