On a scorching Sunday afternoon, 22 girls are engaged in a furious game of football on an arid mud field in Camp kigali. With each kick, the red dust rises in little clouds and the sweat pours easily from their young faces in the midday sun.
The footwork is slick, the enthusiasm is evident, but for these two teams and for girls across Rwanda, football is becoming more than just a beautiful game.
Over the last 10 years, Felicité Rwemalika, founder of the Association of Kigali Women in Sports (AKWOS), has been attempting to use football as a tool to address women’s issues in the country.
“Before, women were not supposed to do sports,” she says.
Traditional Rwandan culture dictated that women were expected to sing and dance; and play games such as volleyball where only the hands are used, says Rwemalika.
A perception Rwemalika was set to change within a decade by initiating the football clubs for women; under the organization that was then called Association of Kigali Women in Football (AKWOF), she says.
“Many mothers did not want to send their daughters,” she says.
Not only did most people think football was a man’s game, they also looked down on girls who wore sports-wear, explained Rwemalika. But for girls who eventually came to the teams, the experience was exciting, she says.
Solange Umwizerwa, 25, has been playing football since primary school. Regularly discouraged by teachers who asked her to play games deemed more suitable for girls, Umwizerwa says she did not give up her dream.
Instead, she says she began to play on men’s teams. After she met Rwemalika, Umwizerwa became part of the Ruhengeri girls’ soccer team and played as a defender.
For Umwizerwa, football became more than just a leisure activity following the 1994 genocide when she lost her father. Learning to get along with her team mates was an important lesson for her, she says.
“When I play football, I must speak to everyone, accept everyone,” she says.
Football helped Umwizerwa deal with her trauma following the loss of her father, she says, adding that she gained new insights into her previously fixed ideas and thoughts. Through discussions with her teammates, she says she understood that everyone has something good to share.
She also quickly realized that without unity, her team would never win and in this way she says she learned to forgive and move on.
“I played on teams with girls from all ethnic backgrounds,” she says. Unity and reconciliation is an important component of Rwemalika’s plan for football in Rwanda.
“After the war women felt shame and felt useless to society,” says Rwemalika, referring to the trauma many women faced following rape and other acts of violence.
“Football encourages them to come out and make friends.”
Sunday’s coach, Benjamin Zoubeir, echoed the sentiment and said his team was like a family and that spending time together playing football made it difficult to divide them even outside the field.
Following a day’s training, the girls sit down together, sometimes with counsellors, and discuss various issues. This includes many noisy discussions about HIV/AIDS, unity and reconciliation, gender rights and violence, says Umwizerwa.
From the time the first Kigali women’s football tournament was held in 2000, Rwemalika says all districts now have teams to represent them. She says she hopes every sector will soon be able to have girls play for local teams.
When AKWOS was established and teams began to be formed, Rwemalika says the beauty salon she owned collapsed as a result of using her money to run her teams.
Now, the organization has many supporters, chief of who are Nike and Mama Cash (an international women’s fund), she says, adding that Nike supplies sportswear and equipment for the girls.
Rwemalika says the challenge she faces is the lack of women’s coaches in the country.
Sunday’s games were both coached by men. Coach Zoubier said the girls need at least a year before their skills are as good as those of boys of a similar age.
Rwemalika hopes the older girls will continue to participate in football through coaching and hopes they will encourage the younger girls.
Umwizerwa says she has taken Rwemalika’s request to heart and in Sunday’s game, she doubled up as cheerleader and doctor for the younger players.
“I hope I will be able to empower others like Felicité did for me,” she says.
The work done by Rwemalika’s AKWOS has garnered international attention from organizations with similar mandates.
Cindy Coltman, programme director of Women Win, an association that supports sports for social change, says along with the founder Astrid Aajfes, she met Rwemalika at a 2006 conference about sports and gender equality held in Casablanca.
They were so impressed with the role sports had in the lives of Rwandan women, they invited Rwemalika to be a part of their board of members when Women Win was founded in 2007.
“Football has helped many young women in Rwanda develop greater confidence and leadership skills,” says Coltman.
But more importantly, she says, football has played an important role in helping girls educate themselves, their families and communities “to believe and promote that girls and women are equal to men, and as such, should be active leaders in all parts of society.”
On this sizzling Sunday afternoon, the girls of Association Sportive Kigali Féminin Football Club, aged between 13 and 19, jostle with each other to be the first to enter the field.
According to Umwizerwa, who is watching the girls with a proud smile, football has sowed the seeds for gender equity in the minds of the younger players she now monitors.
Now when skeptics in the crowd ask if it is possible for women to play football, Umwizerwa says her girls have a simple answer.
They say, “We just show them.”