Nigeria: Kicking Down Barriers and Empowering Girls in Kaduna State

Football is more than just a game; it has the power to unite people across cultures, languages, and borders. But beyond that, it also has the power to bridge the gender equality gap.

When Grace Iliya visited the Bakin-Kogi community in 2019 there was no public school or health-care facility. The community is located on the outskirts of the Karshi District Area in Nasarawa State. Bakin-Kogi has a makeshift school in the community: a block of three classrooms donated by a church, with no chairs or tables. Students were required to sit on the floor to learn. Grace reached out to her circle of friends, and together, they were able to donate chairs, and tables and build toilets for the school.

Grace and her friends started donating to the Bakin-Kogi community, and other underserved communities in Nasarawa State starting in 2019. The main goal was to empower women and girls, while also ensuring access to basic education for the children. “I know that girls have a lot of barriers in bridging the gender gap, especially those in the rural areas and I needed to do something that could give women and girls hope for a future, that could empower them as well as motivate them,” she added.

A unique idea

In 2022, Grace and her friends registered their group as the Orah Bayit Foundation and extended their operations to Kaduna, Benue and the FCT. “In 2022 we visited an IDP Camp in Kaduna State and held a programme on menstrual health and personal hygiene. I discussed with them the possibility of doing things outside their norms and I asked the girls if they were interested in playing sports as a means to get healthier, learn new things, and get an education, and they were all interested,” Grace said.

Grace carried out further surveys among prospective, past, and current beneficiaries of the Orah Bayit Foundation in Kaduna State. result reinforced what she learned at the Internally Displaced People (IDP) camp; young girls are interested in sports, however, they were limited by a lack of access to sporting facilities. Football, for example, can be used to promote a healthy lifestyle in children and young people while also serving as a didactical tool to communicate vital health-related information. In Egypt, the Premier Skills 1,000 Girls, 1,000 Dreams project has successfully used football to empower women and challenge social norms.

Furthermore, participatory game-based learning methods are widely recognised as extremely effective in addressing sensitive topics such as sex education, menstrual health, sexual and gender-based violence, HIV/AIDS, and female genital mutilation in ways that make both mentors and young people feel more at ease.

Sports and physical activities may also lower the incidence of osteopenia and osteoporosis (diseases affecting the bones) in women, increase self-esteem, improve girls’ sense of agency, self-empowerment and personal freedom, and boost emotions of achievement.

Not just a game

After the experience at the Kaduna IDP Camp, Grace launched the Play and Excel; Fostering Success through Sports in 2023 as a project under Orah Bayit Foundation. “The idea behind Play and Excel is to have girls who will enjoy playing football, stay healthy, find inspiration and excel and probably use sports in the future as a means to provide for their family,” Grace said.

The Play and Excel project organises weekly football training for over 60 girls every Saturday at Nariya Government Secondary School Kaduna. Once a month, specialists are invited to speak to the girls on SGBV, menstrual health personal hygiene and the importance of education. At the end of each Saturday training session, the girls also receive a pep talk on decision-making, goal-setting, courtesy and empathy.

The girls, typically between the ages of seven and twenty include vulnerable girls from the IDP camp in Kaduna, girls from low-income homes and other girls who like football. Football has a long history of uniting people across cultures, languages and borders. However, the sport has played an important part in empowering and improving the lives of women and girls globally.

12-year-old Naomi Joshua who aspires to be a medical doctor, but also hopes to play for the Nigeria women’s national football team (Super Falcons), says weekly training is helping her learn more about the game. “It [weekly trainings] has taught me a lot, how to play, how to dribble, how to control and pass and many more thing,” she said. According to her, the weekly session has also provided new knowledge on hygiene and self-esteem. “In gender-based violence, I learnt how to protect myself like speaking out to others and not keeping it to myself” Naomi added.

According to Grace, the Play and Excel project prioritises obtaining the girl’s parents’ buy-in and approval in order to make it easier for the girls to commit to football training while also receiving parental support. While the girls receive half of their transportation fare intermittently from the Orah Bayit Foundation, their parents are encouraged to cover the other half. “What we did from the beginning was to ensure that we involved their parents in what we were doing,” Grace said. “We’ve had girls who were just passing by and saw girls playing and I wanted to play, what we do with such girls is to go meet their parents to ensure that they are aware that their girl is playing football with us.” She added.

The project has also developed a community where the girls may feel safe and accepted. Favor Gideon, 14, who aspires to be a professional footballer, was drawn to Play and Excel because it was an all-girls team “Anytime I’m around girls and I’m playing football I feel comfortable and free, other teams are mostly boys but Orah Bayit Foundation is only girls” Favor said. “I’ve also learnt how to have personal hygiene and be neat, gender-based violence and how to avoid it” she added.

For 20-year-old Bilial Odey, who previously played football with boys, the appeal of an all-female team also drew her to Play and Excel. “At first, I do play [football] with boys then when I saw them training with girls, I decided to join them. I love their training and how we all play together, it’s so exciting and I’m so happy with it,” Bilial remarked.

Distance and culture can be a barrier

Some of the girls have to travel long distances to attend training every Saturday, which can discourage them from being consistent. “One of the days we were training and I asked one of the girls where she came from, all of us there were shocked because of the distance she had to cover to come,” Grace said.

According to Grace, some parents complain about the distance and cost of transportation, while others feel that their daughters are wasting time playing football because of the cultural norm around football’s masculinity. To address these issues, the Orah Bayit Foundation occasionally requests feedback from such parents on behavioural changes in their children, “the response we always get is yes, there are positive changes in behaviour, improved knowledge and all that” Grace noted.

Finance is also a negative. Grace mentioned that her friends are still collecting money for Play and Excel and other Orah Bayit Foundation projects. To expand, Play and Excel is currently partnering with a larger sports facility in Kaduna to introduce basketball, table tennis and badminton to the girls. For the time being, the project is focused on nurturing these girls and providing them with a solid foundation in life, but in the long run, they plan to establish an academy for young girls.

Participation in sports has been found to boost girls’ self-esteem, and the Play and Excel initiative has shown how sports can be used to promote young girls’ access to vital information. Thus, unique avenues, such as creative art, music and fashion, can be used to promote gender equality and close the gender gap in Nigeria.

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