How Soccer is Helping Girls On and Off the Field

Girls’ sports appeared to be an entry point into improving women’s rights in developing countries.

In 2007, Katie Rock was a freshly-minted lawyer blowing off steam, post-bar exam, in Nicaragua. She surfed, hiked, went running, and was met with blanket curiosity voiced in variations on the theme of “Who is this chica running around and doing all this exercise?” One local girl approached Rock and asked, “What are you doing? Aren’t you afraid to be in the water? Aren’t you afraid to surf? That’s for boys.”

Rock, herself a lifelong athlete, returned home haunted by a sense that something strange was going on in Nicaragua. “I grew up playing sports. It’s such a part of who I am,” says Rock. Sports made her happy and gave her confidence in everything else she did. Her life was a stark contrast to the girls she met in Nicaragua, where about half of all girls give birth before the age of 20 and more than half of whom drop out before completing high school. Fleetingly, she considered how being an athlete had set her up for attainment in her own life. “I couldn’t help but wonder, could that be one of those small changes that could have a big effect?”

Rock spent a few years as a “closet bleeding heart” working at a law firm, then shifted to work at the World Health Organization (WHO), through the Pan American Health Organization. It was during this time that Rock researched “a lot of studies and really good studies showing girls who play sports are healthier, more confident, are less likely to get pregnant, are more likely to be well-educated.” Girls’ sports appeared to be an entry point (and perhaps a less controversial one) into improving women’s rights in developing countries. “It solves the root of the problem, rather than a symptom,” says Rock. “The problem isn’t that girls are getting pregnant all the time—that’s obviously a problem—but the problem is that their rights are such that saying no is not even an option for them.” What then, in a place like Nicaragua, could spur more girls to play sports?

Rock spent a year researching barriers to sports for girls in Granada as a consultant for WHO. She learned that three things were keeping girls out of sports. First, few people thought that girls’ athletics were important. Second, like women’s sports programs in many parts of the world, funding was an issue. But paramount in the minds of parents who wanted their daughters to come straight home after school, was the matter of safety. There aren’t many playing fields, and while the boys might take to the streets with a soccer ball, notes Rock, “that’s not something that’s seen as safe and acceptable for girls to do.”

Parents are aware that outside the home, their daughters face considerable sexual harassment. Parents listed a series of fears to Rock: that their daughters would get raped or simply meet a guy and wind up pregnant. “They almost don’t want there to be this loss of control, and if their daughter is in the home, they know what they are doing… They are okay with their daughters being out of the home if there is a clear transfer of control”—like at school. For a girl to participate in sports, the family would have to know the coach well, know their daughters would be guided safely home and that while out, there would be a safe place for them to play.

“So I had this crazy idea to create a product to raise awareness about the importance of girls’ sports and generate funding for girls’ sports. Because I knew that the Nicaraguan men in government might not get it, but I knew that women here in the U.S. probably would,” Rock explains. So the lawyer-turned-entrepreneur launched Activyst with an Indiegogo campaign to fund production of women’s athletic bags, made of Nicaraguan materials and manufactured in Orange County, with a portion of profits going to support girls’ sports programs.

Activyst’s first project was funding a safe field to get girls in Granada playing soccer. In the far outfield of a baseball field, there was an overgrown patch of earth, with, as Rock describes, “tons of plants and garbage and horses grazing on it.” In the start-up’s first partnership with Soccer Without Borders, proceeds from the first sale of athletic bags went toward transforming the field into a playable space.

Mary McVeigh, executive director of Soccer Without Borders, describes the field today as a safe place, enclosed on three sides by a wall. “The only way somebody can really come up and interrupt practice—well, you can see them coming. It gives a real sense of privacy, less of a worry that something will get stolen, less of a worry that you’re on display.” More to the point, the girls feel like the field is theirs. “If there’s a boy on it, they can actually kick the boys off, and that’s a pretty empowering thing.”

Over the time that McVeigh has worked with Granada’s developing the girls’ soccer program, she has seen a league with a hodgepodge of players aged anywhere from six to 35, transformed into a more sensible age-bracketed set of teams, with younger girls playing teams of girls pulled from local school gym classes and teams of tweens and teens competing against the boys. According to McVeigh, the older teams did well this year, making it to the semi-finals in the boys’ league.

“One really promising thing that I see,” says McVeigh, “is girls that are eleven, who have been playing since they were seven… that’s a different generation, and they really embrace soccer and embrace their role as an athlete in a very different way than our older girls.” The boys have surprised McVeigh with how respectful they are when a girl steals the ball from them or serves them with a foul. “The boys have started to change their own perceptions of what is possible.” McVeigh adds, “So that’s a big secondary piece of the program.”

In the time since Activyst officially launched earlier this year, proceeds from athletic bags have also supported a community center in Granada with Soccer Without Borders, funded a sports team through Soccer Without Borders in Uganda, a running coach for Girls Gotta Run in Ethiopia, and this summer is helping fund coaching for a new middle school girls’ program in Oakland.

And back in Granada, parents have told Soccer Without Borders that their daughters are more confident, have made new friends, developed healthier habits and are more active and more interested in taking care of their bodies. The biggest change, from McVeigh’s perspective, is the girls’ identity as student athletes. “They’re really proud to walk around in their T-shirt and shorts, or dribble soccer balls in public.” The girls have, according to McVeigh, also developed “a really strong voice.” Previously, when she asked them open-ended questions (i.e. how are you feeling about school this semester? What are you interested in doing in the future), “you were met with this sort of silence in a lot of ways, where they aren’t asked often what they want and what they can be. And that’s changed a lot.”

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