As the World Cup shows, soccer has the power to unite the world.

Soccer has other powers as well. Grassroot Soccer uses the universal language of soccer to empower youth to adopt healthy behaviours and prevent the spread of HIV.

RV UnitedMeet Ntombi,* who is a learner from Khayelitsha, South Africa’s second-largest township. “I never played before SKILLZ Street. I never thought about playing because it is not common for girls to play soccer in my community.”

Ntombi participated in Grassroot Soccer’s all-girls programme, SKILLZ Street, which combines fair play soccer with safe spaces for conversations that empower girls to ask questions and adopt healthy behaviours. Female role models from Khayelitsha, or “Coaches,” build meaningful relationships with the girls as they discuss issues that face them, as women, in their community. Guided by their caring and energetic Coaches, the girls on each “team” learn about their changing bodies, gender norms, and how avoid risky behaviours and protect themselves and others from HIV. Ntombi explains, “What stayed with me the most was learning how to play soccer and having conversations about what it’s like to be a girl with my team.”

The experience changed Ntombi’s outlook on women’s roles in the community, specifically within the realm of sports. “After SKILLZ Street, I thought it’s a good idea for girls to play soccer and I enjoyed it even though I wasn’t good.” She wanted to continue playing.

A number of Ntombi’s female peers had so enjoyed the opportunity to play soccer that they wanted to continue as well, despite the widely held local belief that girls cannot, and should not, play soccer. Khayelitsha—which is home to an estimated half a million people—did not have a single official girls’ soccer team, so the girls took the initiative to approach the Grassroot Soccer staff with a proposal to form their own squad. When Ntombi found out about the new team, she was eager to join. “I talked to some of my friends about playing and we were the first girls to join RV United, so we started coming to the centre after school to play.”

That was in 2012. Due to RV United’s powerful impact on the community, adolescent girls from the neighbouring areas have flooded in to join the team and a group of younger girls lobbied to form a junior squad. RV United has since grown to include 60 girls on three full squads spanning two age divisions.

Today Ntombi, who plays on this year’s undefeated team, reflects on what the experience has meant to her. “I’ve changed a lot. SKILLZ Street taught me how to protect myself from HIV, but now since I am always around Grassroot Soccer and RV, I am always reminded to stay healthy and have healthy behavior. RV helps me keep learning how to be healthy and a good person.”

Harnessing the power of soccer, Grassroot Soccer engages boys and girls in an HIV education programme that speaks to them. You can help provide more young people like Ntombi with the opportunity to learn about HIV prevention and healthy life skills by donating today.

*Name has been changed

Post submitted by Ali Gilbert and Claire Watt