Kenyan women united in freedom and football

February 13, 2010

In a society where girls are punished for refusing sex and HIV is endemic, football has become an educational tool

The Ukunda Queens collected their trophy in the dark. It had been a great afternoon of football, with 22 young women from the rural province of Kwale in Kenya slugging it out on a rain-drenched pitch to become district champions of the women’s league, undeterred by a herd of goats that occasionally wandered into the action, displaced from their usual home on the terraces by the crowd which had gathered to cheer, buy cashew nuts and argue the merits of each team.

“The Ukunda Queens are good but look — the other side don’t even have shoes,” said an elderly man. It was true. Ukunda’s barefoot opponents, the Dar Queens, slid helplessly in the mud. But Dar’s supporters had travelled for hours on minibuses to reach the ground and were unwilling to concede defeat. “God willing, they will score,” said three teenage girls dressed in traditional headscarves.

But it was not to be. The rain continued, the final whistle blew and the players listened patiently while a series of local dignitaries and politicians addressed them long into the night.

In one of the country’s poorest provinces, where few buildings have electricity or water, the ceremony ended in complete darkness as the Ukunda Queens, 5-0 winners, were handed the cup. “I told you we would win,” said star striker Riziki Juma, with a shrug.

The Ukunda Queens are the Manchester United of Kenyan women’s football. As the original team in the league — and still the best — they have a certain swagger. “If we had lost I would have cried,” said Riziki, “but I didn’t think that would happen.”

Now 22, Riziki has been playing for the team for four years. In a conservative country, and an Islamic province, to hear a girl openly expressing her views is unusual, but her confidence has grown.

“Starting a girls’ football league seemed like a crazy idea at first,” says Roselyn Mutemi-Wangahu, the co-ordinator from Unicef, the United Nations children’s fund, which launched the Ukunda Queens six years ago as part of an effort to encourage more women to attend HIV awareness sessions. She called the project Kick Aids and, with backing from the Vodafone Foundation, it has expanded rapidly. There are now thousands of Kenyan women’s teams.

“We had to reach those girls. They don’t stay in school or go to organised groups. Their parents keep them at home,” says Mutemi-Wangahu. “We had to bring them together to raise their confidence and teach them about HIV. Here, the one thing that brings everyone together is soccer.”

Even so, football was a surprising choice. Emblems of the English Premier League are everywhere in Kenya, with cars, buses and T-shirts bearing the badges of Arsenal, Manchester United and others. But that is the men’s game, and the notion of a girls’ league was met with hostility. A local imam, Sheikh Omari Fumbwe, explains that the main objection was to girls wearing football strips. “A woman needs to cover her whole body and we were concerned that some of their bodies were bare. We suggested that they adjust the shorts to cover more of their legs.”

Anisa Kombo, 23, a petite, outspoken midfield player with the Ukunda Queens, says that the atmosphere at the team’s early matches was intimidating. “Older men use the terraces as a place to meet and chat,” she says. “When they saw us playing they cursed us. Some Muslim leaders said that we were being led into prostitution. Other boys and girls called us lesbians. Here the idea is that the woman stays in the kitchen. A girl may never set foot in school and can be married off at 12.”

Kwale has one of the lowest proportions of girls in education in the country. According to tradition, girls are not allowed to speak to their fathers directly and are taught to respect male authority in all circumstances. Once married, women fear being sent back to their parents if they refuse sex, and are often beaten.

“There has been a change in our community in letting the girls play football — and it gives me hope,” says the football league’s district chairman and team coach, Mohamed Said Mwakulola. He remembers going from door to door, trying to persuade parents to let their daughters join the team. “It took three years, one step at a time,” he says. “Originally, the girls wanted to play wearing their headscarves. Now we have persuaded them not to.” The first teams formed slowly, in some cases taking more than a year to build up to a full squad.

Anisa’s grandfather is a senior Muslim elder. Sitting in his living room, beneath a gold football trophy, he beams proudly as he says: “In the beginning it was thought very unusual, but I’ve seen the benefits and I told other parents to let their children join the programme. Minds have changed because we can see that it keeps the girls busy and they learn important things.”

The issue important enough to sweep aside entrenched cultural beliefs remains unspoken but it is everywhere: Aids. Two thirds of young people infected with HIV are girls; a fact now identified as key to tackling the epidemic in Unicef’s HIV prevention campaign that was launched last month. One local man watching the football final said simply: “According to our traditions, what they are doing is wrong but if it’s about HIV, it’s acceptable.”

In Kenya, girls aged between 15 and 19 are seven times more likely to contract the virus than boys of the same age. Some girls are married off early to much older men who already have other wives and many casual sexual partners. Others are encouraged by their families to exchange sex for food money. Teenage boredom in areas with little entertainment only adds to the problem.

When Pamela Mwanza became a single mother at 22, she thought her life was over. “I cried all the time,” she says. “The father said he was going out to buy baby clothes but he never came back.” Pamela’s mother encouraged her to join the Young Stars, then a struggling team with only six players. “Now we are turning women away. We can beat anyone, but not the Ukunda Queens,” she says. Pamela turned her new-found confidence to advantage, first becoming a Kick Aids peer educator, then operating a mobile HIV testing service.

On the road to her village, she points out the bushes behind the general store that were once a meeting point for schoolgirls and men wanting to pay for sex. “The girls told me that they charged 20p for sex with a condom and 25p without. I persuaded them that 5p was not worth dying for.”

Pamela’s village, high in the Shimba Hills, is in an area that appears to be a lush rural backwater, with women tilling crops by hand, small boys herding animals under the mango trees and a goat sleeping peacefully on a gravestone. In fact, HIV education in such places has serious obstacles to overcome, including witchdoctors whose “treatment” involves having sex with HIVinfected patients, and a belief in some families that girls should sleep with their fathers and uncles to “make them fat and strong” and “open the door to other men”.

In the clearing outside Pamela’s house, her brother chops a pile of coconuts while a group of women chatter near by, waiting for their HIV test. Some are widows waiting to see what their husband’s legacy will be, others are teenagers with babies strapped to their backs — the second and third wives of older men. Another group waits farther down the road: the women who have already tested positive for HIV.

Pamela puts on a white coat and ushers the women one by one into her house. While her daughter bounces happily on the bed, she counsels Beatrice, a 69-year-old widow, then takes a drop of blood for the test. After five minutes they look at the result. Beatrice is negative. “I’m relieved,” says Pamela. “It is hard to deliver bad news. I’ve been trained not to cry but sometimes I do. When I tested someone in my extended family and the result was positive, I cried more than they did.”

Football has given Pamela a status in her community. Running on the pitch, she can demonstrate something that everyone wants: health. But while younger girls gather to listen to her advice on HIV, she wonders how many men are paying attention. In one village Evelyn, 30, reports that her husband has been very supportive of the football team, yet he refused to use contraception after the birth of their seventh child and she is now pregnant with the eighth. This time, she says, “I’m going to get my tubes cut”.

Some women in the more remote villages ask repeatedly where Aids came from. “If you find a snake under your bed, do you say ‘Hello, where have you come from?’ ” asks Pamela in frustration. “No. You just kill it.” Still, they all want to play football, leaving behind their children and hitching up their skirts to practise on dusty pitches. They range from teenagers to grandmothers.

These women are a world away from the Ukunda Queens, who have the youthful cockiness that comes from better education and proximity to Mombasa. Anisa Kombo has already announced that she will not be marrying in the near future and that, when she does, it must be to a man “who likes a challenge and can accept me as my own person”. She is learning Hindi to understand her idol, Gandhi, better, and is reading Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus.

Riziki Juma runs her own sewing business but her heart is in football. Nicknamed Wayne Rooney by her team-mates, she hopes that the Ukunda Queens’ victory impressed the selectors from the national women’s team. Riziki looks around the now empty Ukunda ground, with its goats, chickens and mud. The game has already transformed her life but she, and the rest of them, hope that it can take them farther. “It is not an impossible dream,” she says.

The Vodafone Foundation supports disaster relief and helps disadvantaged children through sport and music.

To donate to Unicef’s We Want to Live Free from HIV campaign, visit

Comments (1)

Posted by: Mercy mueni over 10 years ago

Hi, i just want to know if you have a girls football clubs because i would like to join instead of staying idle.You see i cleared form four and am not able to attend college. Thank you

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