South Africa

South Africa

HIV – 0, Soccer – 1: Khayelitsha’s girls are kicking their way to health

HIV – 0, Soccer – 1: Khayelitsha’s girls are kicking their way to health

Grassroot Soccer is expanding. The organisation, which uses football to reach at-risk youth to try to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids, has just launched a new programme aimed at empowering young girls, smashing harmful gender stereotypes and teaching them good health habits – all while getting them moving on the field. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

In the heart of the Khayelitsha township is a modest brick building. Drive up and you’re immediately surrounded by tiny children who want to know everything about you: what’s your name? What are you doing? What’s that in your bag? And no, you cannot have your hand, arm or leg back – you’re going inside with company attached to every available limb.

These miniscule beings – all eyes and questions – are just some of the dozens of children you’ll meet at the Football for Hope centre in Khayelitsha. Opened in 2010, a year when all eyes were on football in South Africa, the centre was the culmination of a yearlong collaboration involving the Football for Hope movement, Grassroot Soccer, the Khayelitsha Development Forum, and numerous supporters and funders.

It was the first of 20 similar centres that would be built in economically disadvantaged communities across Africa as part of Football for Hope’s 20 Centres for 2010, the official campaign of the 2010 World Cup.

Most recently, it has become home to SKILLZ Banyana, Grassroot Soccer’s latest initiative.

Daily Maverick has previously reported on the work of Grassroot Soccer, which uses soccer as a tool in HIV/Aids prevention. GRS relies on hundreds of young role model educators throughout Africa to connect with young people at risk of developing HIV/Aids, incorporating testing, awareness raising and social support.

“We recruit young people from the communities where we work to join us for a two-year programme,” explains managing director James Donald. “They are trained as coaches, in the sense that they are caring adults and community role models. They don’t have to be soccer coaches, but many are.” The coaches work in pairs, one male and one female, and they are assigned schools and communities to work in. Coaches then work with their ‘team’, which will usually be around 10 – 20 learners, for weekly ‘practices’ of between 45 and 90 minutes each. These practices alternate between actual soccer practices and life orientation sessions. 

Last week, in honour of Women’s Month, GRS launched SKILLZ Banyana, their new programme aimed specifically at girls.

Although the programme is primarily aimed at HIV/Aids prevention, that’s not all it does. Communication Coordinator Jenn Warren explains that over the years, GRS has moved away from aggressive language focusing on “fighting” the disease, towards more inclusive language that also addresses underlying issues: raising awareness, building self-esteem, and healthy living regardless of status. Of relevance to SKILLZ Banyana, too, is that GRS is working on breaking down harmful gender stereotypes and empowering girls, which it believes will ultimately reduce risky behaviours.

Building SKILLZ Banyana

So what is SKILLZ Banyana? “In South Africa, the consequences of the norms governing gender power relations are severe, particularly for girls,” explains Warren. “These power imbalances and harmful gender norms result in widespread acceptance of violence against women, low self-esteem, increased high school dropout rates, transactional and age-disparate sex, early exposure to sex, and teenage pregnancy.” These factors, explains Warren, also drive the HIV epidemic in South Africa.

HIV/Aids is straining the country as a whole, but it is devastating to young women. By 2002, the disease was hampering economic growth by as much as 0.4% p.a. The adult prevalence rate of HIV is currently 16.9%, but there is a disproportionate concentration of the disease among women and girls. Globally, there are nearly twice as many young women as young men with the disease. In South Africa’s antenatal clinics, infection rates double between attendees aged 15 – 18 and those aged 20 – 24. For girls engaging in unprotected sex, therefore, the teenage years are a crucial phase in prevention.

According to Warren, there are a number of large-scale multi-sectoral initiatives focusing on gender issues and HIV/Aids, but very few that give young women close contact with positive role models. Just as scarce are interventions that focus on increasing self-esteem, physical health and school performance, while also addressing the imbalance of social norms that present men as decision makers and dominant partners. For young girls who feel their options are limited, this is sorely needed. In Khayelitsha alone, a reported 15.1% of girls aged 16 – 18 have dropped out of school, with the reported reasons being poverty, family commitments, poor performance, disability or illness, and pregnancy.

Sport for Development (SFD) interventions make sense; they have a sound track record statistically. “[SFDs] have been shown to change behaviour and improve health outcomes,” says Warren, citing a 2005 study by Koss and Alexandrova. GRS’s own track record is also strong. Evaluations of GRS have been done by a number of universities locally and internationally, and all found that GRS’s interventions reduce risky sexual behaviour, decrease stigma, and improve participants’ level of knowledge and awareness around HIV/Aids.

For GRS in particular, there has been a documented improvement in participants’ decision-making and perceived level of support. A Zimbabwean study found that students who could list three people they could talk to about HIV increased from 33% to 72% after participation in GRS’s intervention; participants who knew where to go for help for HIV-related problems increased from 47% to 76%. The percentage of students believing condoms were effective increased from 49% to 71%. Some 77% of the coaches who graduate from the organisation’s two-year employment programme go into educational, employment or training careers.

But one never gets the feeling, talking to GRS staff, that they believe sport is a panacea. Director Donald previously told Daily Maverick: “Many believe that sport is some kind of magic dust – that if you play, somehow everything is better. There is some evidence that sport has positive health outcomes, especially for girls. But if you want to challenge big, systemic problems like HIV or gender-based violence, you need to be far more deliberate.

“For us, sport is a Trojan horse. It means we can build relationships with children in a safe space that they are proud of participating in. It also provides a plethora of ready images, metaphors and analogies that children can relate to. Also, with soccer in particular, it is a powerful way to challenge norms and stereotypes around gender. But most important to all this work is the coach.”

DSC_3713Coach Sony Dick speaks at the launch

Photo: Coach Sony Dick speaks at the launch. (Cory D’Orazio/ Grassroot Soccer)

SKILLZ Banyana was conceptualised in response to community demand. GRS was already running the SKILLZ Street programme, an all-girl after school programme which used sport to teach learners about reproductive health, gender, self-esteem and related subjects. It had a sport component as well as a structured curriculum. SKILLZ Street was named as one of the Top 10 Educational Initiatives for girls and women worldwide in 2012.

Some of its graduates wanted to continue working with Grassroot Soccer and learning more. From there, the RV United All Girls Soccer Team was launched (it initially was named after its founders, Rebecca and Vuyo, but now stands for Resilient and Victorious). The team is now large enough to be sub-divided into Juniors, Regional and the Sasol League, the latter being for the players who are the best technically and hope to be scouted.

From RV, some of the players, as well as staff on SKILLZ Street, proposed a programme that was exclusively sport-based. Enter SKILLZ Banyana, which combines a focus on physical health, healthy eating, and psychological health, giving young girls a support network to grow their confidence and talk about gender-based issues in an age-appropriate way. The majority of the 200 girls on the programme are aged 10 – 14, but some are as young as eight or nine.

The programme is geared towards continuous engagement within Grassroot Soccer’s SKILLZ interventions to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS. Training and coaching is given to both Grassroot Soccer coaches and participants, so as to create a pool of qualified coaches and girls with soccer skills who can graduate into the RV United team, as well as increase interest in the GRS SKILLZ Street and Generation SKILLZ interventions.

DSC_0840players on the field at the launch

Photo: Players on the field at the launch (Cory D’Orazio/ Grassroot Soccer)

Going through the SKILLZ Banyana curriculum, one sees different sections divided according to different themes, and each session opens and closes with a talking circle. All members sign a contract based on the principles ‘Respect, Communicate, Lead’ and the coaches are trained to recognise ‘Teachable Moments’. They also rely heavily on connecting by telling their own stories. The meat of the session, however, is a soccer match. It’s around the team bonds, and the trust in the coach, that the real work takes place.

The players

“I am too busy for risky behaviours,” says Coach Athi Sidondi (21). “I train the whole week. On the weekends I don’t have time to go out. I think when someone is in sport they will be more responsible. They can’t drink tonight because tomorrow they are going to fail their team. They will think more about the people around them because everything they do affects somebody else.”

Sidondi says GRS taught her everything she knows about HIV/Aids. “Before, I wasn’t really aware about HIV and how it can affect everyone around you.”

Athi sithondi_DSC_6253

Photo: Coach Athi Sidondi (Grassroot Soccer)

Athi told her story in the #iamafootballer campaign; how her team at GRS gave her essential support after she came out as gay, which was extremely difficult. “I live in Khayelitsha. It is hard, being a young girl. Being a lesbian made it even harder. Sometimes I thought I wouldn’t make it,” she said at the time.

Today, this struggle doesn’t even merit a mention. Asked about her greatest personal challenges, Athi speaks of having been an impatient person, and now being much more tolerant. She speaks of the support she has received and given. “In RV it’s like a huge family of girls, with the big father figure of our coach,” she says. “We support each other in and outside the field; the challenges we face back home. Having someone telling you that you can do it, having teammates around giving you support, is a great gift.”

IMG_3540Theyre not in RV yet but they are resilient and victorious

Photo: They’re not in RV yet but they are resilient and victorious (Jenn Warren/Grassroot Soccer)

As a child, playing soccer on a girls’ team was inconceivable. “SKILLZ Banyana is great,” she says. “At their age, I had to pretend that I was a boy to play on a team. My coach was not aware that I was a girl. Most of the girls in Khayelitsha do not get the opportunity to play on a team. But if they play on RV, they can be seen by other coaches. It’s a great development for our national team.”

Playing sport also leads both participants and coaches to make better choices, she says. “It keeps them active and helps for their health. Most of the kids are not active otherwise. When kids are more in sport they make better choices.” As for herself: “I cannot drink. I have to be a role model. There is no smoking, no carrying alcohol around. I have even had to change some of my friends. Some of them are not good role models in our community.”

As a coach, she has supported girls through problems as diverse as tension at home, not understanding the beginning of menstruation, and testing positive for HIV. “I have never had a situation where I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “Once a kid disclosed that she was HIV positive, but was on treatment so I could help her. I could praise her for having the courage to disclose to me, and praise her for taking treatment. I had to motivate her; tell her she could still live long. She knows that. She can live longer if she looks after her health.”

Coach Sive Kenke (22) is no GRS rookie either. Introduced to the organisation by coach (and now permanent staff member) Vuyo Kayi, she previously played on the RV team.

Having left college, she was not employed, and Coach Vuyo did not want her sitting at home, so he proposed she begin coaching,

“Before I came here, I used to play with boys in Langa. But playing with boys, I didn’t have someone to talk to. Now, if you want to talk, you express your feelings on the field. It is like family; a lot easier to get along.”

Even though she would consider returning to her studies to become a Chartered Accountant, Kenke feels alternative careers cannot compete right now. “I will continue with this line of work,” she says. “I am changing other people’s lives for the better. I am a role model.

“I’m opening a safe space. If they cannot talk to their parents, they come to me.”

One of the children who regards Kenke as a safe space is Andiswe* (10), on Kenke’s team. Andiswe, in that disarming manner of some children, has no filter. Whatever is on her mind drops out of her mouth, good and bad, but one gets the impression this is largely to do with the presence of Kenke at her side. Andiswe, Warren tells me, is one of a handful of outstanding dancers who performed at the launch of SKILLZ Banyana. The crowd loved her.

What do you play? I ask her. Midfielder.

Would you like to play professionally one day? Yes.

Are you good? Emphatically: Yes.

Why should girls play soccer? Puzzled face: Because they love it.

(I and the GRS intern look at each other. This little girl has just taught us feminists a great deal in the way of common sense.)

Are boys better than girls at soccer? Yes, a lot.

What should girls do about it? Again, a dose of common sense: Practise every day.

In what way has Coach Sive helped you? When my father beats my mother she tells me it will be all right.

It is like a punch to the gut. I’m thrown completely off balance. For her part, she seems unaware that she wasn’t just making conversation.

What will you do when you are a famous soccer player one day? I ask her when I recover my equilibrium. I will call Coach Sive and say thank you for teaching me soccer.

And will you buy anything special? I will buy my sister her own house and my mother a car. A BMW!

Her sister is two. Andiswe is the big sister; she protects her.

And why is Coach Sive so good to you? l ask. What has she taught you?

A long pause.

“She taught me how to talk to my mother. How to tell her what I am feeling and what I want. That makes me feel happy.”

Another pause.

“Before, I felt uncomfortable. If my father was there she was going to shout at me. But now, I can tell my mother.”

Moving forward

SKILLZ Banyana will be supported for the next year at least, as it was the only project in Africa to be chosen for funding by Cityzens Giving, a programme of City Football Group. (The latter’s family of clubs include a couple of not-too-shabby names: Barclays Premier League Champions, Manchester City FC, new Major League Soccer franchise New York City FC and A-League side Melbourne City FC.) It was shortlisted through an official proposal process, but ultimately chosen as the winner by fans.

For the girls on the programme, it’s a crucial way to stay active, learn about nutrition, empower themselves to remain healthy physically and psychologically, and get support from a caring adult outside of their family. It’s understanding this holistic approach that ultimately makes GRS succeed, taking the long – but more effective – route to overcoming HIV/Aids. Most of the time, says Kenke, parents are fully supportive of any home interventions. If they aren’t, the coaches call in a social worker. But intervene they do.

It’s worth remembering the words of Donald, who told Daily Maverick in 2014 that the biggest difference was made not by sport itself, but by “injecting a caring adult into the lives of at-risk youth”. It’s this care, time and again, that makes the difference when the chips are down. DM

* Name changed

Main photo: Players on the field at the launch (Cory D’Orazio/ Grassroot Soccer)


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