Scoring a goal for gender equality: Volunteer hosts first all-female soccer tournament

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By Danielle Betterman
Oct. 1, 2019

Two teams, dressed in mis-matched red and blue jerseys, stood in the middle of the soccer field facing one another – goalie eyeing goalie, with defensive and offensive players falling into line behind one another.

Some were clad in tennis shoes, while others made do with flip flops or just their bare feet.

As the creeping sun threatened darkness on April 10, the referee blew his whistle to signal the beginning of the first all-female soccer tournament of Sinthiang Koundara, Kolda.

Sophie Kapica, an Agroforestry volunteer for Peace Corps Senegal, wanted to lead an empowering event for the young women in her community, who are often seen as unequal to men – a cultural norm across Senegal. Because soccer, as with most Senegalese sports, is male-focused at both village and professional levels, she decided the sport was the perfect place to target her efforts.

Kapica first noticed the gender disparity in sports when she met young Senegalese women along her nightly runs. If invited to run with Kapica, the girls would jog alongside her for just a few steps and then stop, not wanting to continue the sports that are considered more masculine.

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Gender inequality is also evident in Senegalese schools, as they are at home and in professional settings. Binta Diallo, who helped Kapica organize the tournament, noted that the all-female soccer tournament could help close these gaps at their local level.

“It inspires them to work harder at school,” Diallo said. “The feeling of empowerment that they get from sports can help the girls go farther with their studies as well.”

Kapica agreed, adding that building confidence will spill into all other areas of their lives and help them advocate for what is best for themselves.

In March, Kapica brought the idea to her counterparts Ablaye Sow and Diallo. With support from the local mayor and middle school gym teacher, they started planning the tournament, which included gaining access to the soccer field and gathering students for the four participating teams.

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The tournament was organized without grant money from Peace Corps, and local officials worried that the girls would lack motivation without physical awards. However, Sow said the lack of prizes helped the girls remember why they were really playing in the tournament.

“We explained (to the girls) that it wasn’t about the money or the prizes, it was about playing – it was about the practice,” Sow said. “It inspired them.”

The young women who made up the teams included girls from Sinthiang Koundara as well as surrounding villages, all of whom attend the local middle school.

Forty-four participating girls split up into four teams, donning red, blue, white and black. They played in a tournament-style, the first two games taking place back-to-back on April 10 and the last two games the following evening. After two days of playing, the red team was victorious.

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When the tournament finally came together, Kapica said it turned out to be so much more than she expected.

Crowds gathered – males and females alike – to watch their daughters, sisters and friends play. The live DJ who Sow hired blasted Senegalese music as the commentator fought to make himself heard over the cheering and high-energy songs. All eyes were on the girls running across the field.

“The community really came out to support the girls,” Kapica said. “Members of the surrounding villages come out and watch and cheer on the girls, in addition to the five volunteers who were there.”

With the help of her counterparts and four other volunteers – Paula Ospina, Amanda Kirby and Danielle Bettermann from Kolda region and Adam Strubeck from Tambacounda region – few problems occurred and Kapica was pleased with the girls’ enthusiasm and the support the entire community showed them.

She hopes to hold another tournament for the girls in October, 2019.

“(The girls) showed up for both days of the tournament, even if they didn’t have shoes or wore only sandals, and really put their hearts into it,” Kapica said. “Their effort was incredible and really inspiring to see, and their commitment and dedication was really phenomenal for all of us to witness.”

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