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Power Play: Empowering Women and Girls in Africa Through Football

15/06/2015 16:50 BST | Updated 12/06/2016 10:59 BST

It may seem like double trouble to encourage women in some of the world's most unequal societies to participate in one of the world's most unequal sports. So what is the rationale behind Power Play - an initiative to empower women and girls in Africa through football? After all it is generally agreed that rampant sexism is the ugly side of the beautiful game, and something that African women already experience more than enough of.

By way of background, Power Play is a collaboration between Isha Johansen, President of the Sierra Leone Football Association and me. It is intended to become an annual conference on the subject and we conceived of it to keep women's football in Africa regularly on the agenda. It will be launched at the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015, with FIFA and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) throwing their weight behind it. As the only female President of a football association in Africa, and one of only two female FA presidents in the world, Isha Johansen's football credentials are indisputable. To call mine shaky would be generous to say the least.

But to understand how football can boost gender equity and empower African women, I don't need to understand the offside rule. Two years ago, in an isolated Southern outpost in Sierra Leone I watched a women's football tournament, organised by Sierra Rutile, a local mining company. Discrimination against women in Sierra Leone is widespread, ranked by the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) as 'very high'. Yet for the duration of their tournament, the female footballers didn't appear to be constrained by the country's usual restrictive cultural norms.

They were exuberant and enthusiastic, triumphant in victory, generous in defeat and, even to my inexperienced eyes, very skilful football players. They were healthy, confident, visibly proud of being part of the tournament and had attracted a crowd of spectators whose appreciation of the event was every bit as great. My unforensic analysis is borne out by research. A UN report on women and sports concludes: All areas of development can be influenced by sport, including health, education, employment, social inclusion, political development and peace and security."

Of course, the question remains - why football, especially in Africa where it is a gruellingly tough game? The answer I think is that there is something about the rawness, team spirit and passion of football that makes it unique. Those qualities are instantly recognisable even by someone like me who's sporting tastes run to the solitary and the traditionally feminine - horse riding, figure skating, running with headphones. Isha Johansen describes football as a 'unifying force' and certainly no other sport seems to create such an intense bond between the players, spectators and fans. So while participation in any sport benefits women's development, there is something particularly powerful about the world's most popular game. Put it this way, you can bring down a wall with a hammer and chisel, but a bulldozer will do the job much faster; and a bulldozer is what Africa needs.

Isha and I come from Sierra Leone. The country has been living with Ebola for over a year, although with the epidemic in its last lingering stages, life has started to return to normal. Schools have reopened and children are back at their desks; all except one group - visibly pregnant school girls. A year off from school has taken its toll. Pre-Ebola teenage pregnancies made up one-third of pregnancies in the country. Experts believe that rate has only increased in the wake of Ebola - a consequence of increased sexual violence as well as pressure on girls to engage in transactional sex due to the harsh economic impact of Ebola. These arguments haven't softened the Sierra Leone Ministry of Education, which argues that the presence of visibly pregnant school girls in the classroom will encourage other girls to get pregnant.

Would a national enthusiasm for women's football have prevented this scenario? Not directly, but other gender barriers can be knocked down more easily, once one has already been dismantled and if football for girls was reliably on the curriculum in schools, it would be a significant step towards equity between the sexes in the schoolrooms, as well as giving girls a sense of achievement, team loyalty and discipline. Nothing creates a desire for empowerment, success or achievement than the experience of it and the more football gives African women and girls that opportunity, the more it can help to bring about positive change in a society where women have been discriminated against for many years.