The International Day of Sport for Development and Peace (IDSDP) on April 6 is an annual celebration of the power of sport to drive social change, community development and to foster peace and understanding. One way Grassroot Soccer (GRS) works to create change and understanding is by creating opportunities for girls to challenge harmful gender norms through sport.

In many countries where GRS works, soccer is perceived as a male domain, which requires GRS to ensure it uses the sport intentionally to challenge, rather than reinforce, this belief.

In South Africa, Grassroot Soccer interviewed primary school teachers and learners in schools in Khayelitsha, a township outside of Cape Town, where it runs the SKILLZ Banyana soccer development program for pre- and early adolescent girls (9–14 years old). A consistent theme was the possibility that playing soccer, which is traditionally a “boy’s thing”, would have an impact on the girls’ sexual orientations and identities. Using the word “tomboy” to refer to a lesbian, local teachers’ biggest concern was that girls who play soccer would feel pressured to change their behavior and/ or sexual orientation, starting with the way they look, how they cut their hair and the clothes they choose to wear.

“Some children think that if you play soccer you are going to be a tomboy, so they don’t want to play soccer.” – Tumi, Grade 4, Khayelitsha

The perception that soccer is not for girls results in a lack of sport opportunities for them, which in turn contributes further to the gendered perception, creating a vicious cycle. The perception that public spaces are for men and boys is common, and sport can assist in providing women and girls with opportunities to claim public spaces.

“The biggest challenge is that there is no proper formation of girls’ teams at the community level. The girls only get the opportunity to play soccer while they are here, in school, unlike the boys.” – Mr. M., Teacher, Khayelitsha

Grassroot Soccer has leveraged some of these restrictive attitudes, and harnessed them, as a way to engage in important conversations with girls and boys about stereotypes and sexuality. As significant numbers of girls begin to participate in sports and female athletes gain public recognition, girls acquire new community affiliations, mentors, access to venues, and begin to more openly participate in community life.

For more insight into these issues, check out our latest report “More Than Just a Game: Sport as a Communication Platform for Adolescent Girls.”