Why football is a game-changer for girls in Kenya

In Kenya, many girls do not have equal access to opportunities.

Esse Mbeyu
Esse Mbeyu holding the trophy the MTG team won at the UN Global Goals World Cup in New York, September 2017. Photo: Moving the Goalposts

When Esse Mbeyu was a small girl growing up in Kenya’s Kilifi County, she wasn’t allowed to play football. But today she is a member of Kenya’s national women’s team and has played in many high-profile national and international matches.

Drawn to the beautiful game since she was young, Esse describes how she used to go and watch her brothers play football with their friends: “Watching them play was agony!” she says. “Girls in my community were not allowed to play football or even stay out of the house for long hours.”

The gender inequality that Esse describes is a huge issue for many young women in the Kenyan coastal counties of Kilifi and Kwale. Both are ranked among the poorest counties in Kenya; illiteracy levels are high and only 11 out of 20 girls proceed to secondary school. Teenage pregnancy and early marriage are common, and girls lack access to sexual and reproductive information and services.

Esse’s footballing success wouldn’t have been possible without Moving the Goalposts (MTG), a community-based organisation in Kenya’s coastal region that uses football as a tool to empower disadvantaged girls. 24-year-old Esse is just one of the 9,000 girls it has supported in the past 16 years.

“Many girls do not have equal access to opportunities,” says Dorcas Amakobe, Executive Director of MTG, who has just returned to Kenya from a trip to the FIFA Foundation festival in World Cup host city, Moscow. “All too often, they fail to achieve their educational goals, which limits their options for the future. They’re also burdened with extra responsibilities at home, like fetching water or caring for family members.”

At eight years old, Esse was among the first group of girls to join the organisation in 2002. “I never missed football training!” she says. “I was a very shy girl, but I would feel confident when walking out onto the pitch and I believed that my skilled playing would open up the space for more girls to play football.”

As Dorcas points out, when girls go out onto the football pitch, they occupy the same spaces traditionally occupied by men. This challenges limiting beliefs about what girls can and can’t do: “When people in the community see girls play football, it changes their perception about what girls can do – and the girls themselves grow in their self-confidence and self-belief,” Dorcas adds.

But Dorcas’s work goes far beyond the football pitch. Her organisation delivers sexual and reproductive education sessions alongside football training. It promotes access to education through preventing school drop-out and providing support with scholarships. It also supports young women with leadership training, employment and life skills like saving money.

MTG is a partner of United Purpose, a UK-based international development organisation that integrates sport within a wide range of its programmes.

“Sport is a great way of bringing people together and its impact extends far beyond physical benefits – it has huge potential to drive positive social change,” says Steve Harknett, United Purpose’s Global Advisor for Sport for Development and Peace. “It’s inspiring to see the changes in the lives of so many girls and young women in Kenya’s coastal region through football.”

Esse is just one of the women who can testify to the life-changing impact football has had on her life. Attending MTG’s weekly reproductive health sessions has equipped her with vital decision-making and negotiation skills. She was able to go to university as a result of a scholarship via MTG – something that would not have been possible otherwise – and her football career has gone from strength to strength.

For Dorcas, one of the most rewarding things about her job is seeing girls and women like Esse overcome the odds and forge successful lives for themselves. And, as an avid football fan and keen Tottenham supporter, she’s awaiting this Sunday’s World Cup final with bated breath – but her eyes are also fixed further into the future.

“My hope for the future is that girls and young women in Kenya’s coastal region will have equal opportunities to men,” Dorcas says. “I want to see women in business, politics and higher education – this will make our community really successful.”