The founder of Association of Kigali Women in Sports (AKWOS), Felicite Rwemalika, saw football as a powerful instrument to re-engage and empower girls and women. Since 2001, she has successfully introduced football in all provinces of Rwanda. She spoke to Women Today’s Sharon Kantengwa about AKWOS’ development over the yars.
Tell us about yourself
I am the founder of Association of Kigali Women in Sports (AKWOS) and I’m on the advisory board of the Rwanda National Olympic committee. I’m married with four children. I’m 57 years old. I was born and raised in Uganda but I came to Rwanda after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. I am a nurse by profession.
How did you come up with AKWOS?
I developed an interest in football during my youth. My father was a doctor who enjoyed playing football in his free time and together with my brother, we would escort him for training and matches. Unlike my brother, I was warned never to touch the ball because our culture prohibited girls from touching the ball, which kept me thinking that being born a girl was unfortunate. I kept on following different matches on television and through those matches, I realised that there was the women’s World Cup but unfortunately, it was too late for me to play soccer.
Since I missed the chance, I wanted to help young girls unlock their potential. I decided to register the organisation so that my voice could be heard and people thought I was crazy. Nevertheless, my passion to bring about change, made me focus on my favourite sport, football, so that people’s mind-set would be changed. I believe that football not only keeps you fit but it improves your financial status, just like any other profession.
How does the organisation empower women?
I came up with a mission to empower women through football because I wanted to prove to the country that women’s football was indeed a necessity. I divided the 30 girls into two teams and took them to different provinces to show other girls that football can be played. Through mobilising girls to play football, we had a large audience coming to see the ‘extraordinary’, thus using the opportunity to pass on different messages like gender related issues, HIV/AIDS, unity and reconciliation. We worked with the respective organisations that supported us financially. We had 12 provinces by then and would leave a new team every time we left. With help from the media, there was a change in the mind-set within one year.
What challenges did you face?
At first, it was difficult to have girls play because their parents were a big hindrance. They always thought that girls’ extra-curricular involved singing, dancing, volleyball and netball, but football was an abomination. It took me two years to get at least 30 girls to play for the women’s football team. Their parents later on supported me after seeing a change in their daughter’s lives. Nobody wanted to support me financially yet the girls needed sports equipment like jerseys and facilitation. I had a beauty salon where I solicited revenue from but it collapsed within a year because the expenditure was high. I sold it at a giveaway price and invested all the money in the organisation. It took us ten years to be part of the National Football Federation because I met a lot resistance after which I was elected as the president of FERWAFA which gave me hope that my efforts weren’t futile.
What are your achievements?
Our national team is able to compete with other international teams and there has been an improvement in mentality and the system as girls are now allowed to play football in schools. We currently have five international women referees who are certified by Federation International Football Association (FIFA) making Rwanda the country with the highest number of female referees certified by FIFA in Africa. We won an award with Ashoka Fellows through my initiative ‘Empowering women through sports to expel social and cultural beliefs that hinder women from participating in the country’s development’. Football is the number one sport so if Rwanda is recognised in it then it’s also part of the country’s development.
Do you still receive support?
We receive support mostly from international organisations although the government also supports us. We work hand in hand with local leaders to pass out messages to their respective communities. In 2007, we were supported by NIKE through sports equipment and they would give us a container every year. We now have a partnership with Women Win based in The Netherlands whose mission is to empower young adolescent girls through sports.
What is your philosophy in life?
I believe in change and I do not rely on other peoples capabilities. Every citizen has the mandate to participate in the country’s development. Everyone can do something great to help the country develop and can also work hard to improve their lives.
What advice do you have for the women?
Every woman has the potential to change the world but they just need to build more confidence. Women’s voices can be heard because they are determined to fulfil their dreams. Unless they unlock their potential, they will never influence the world.