If someone suggested that soccer is a sport for boys – and boys alone – Entle Lentore would quickly set the record straight. The 13-year-old SKILLZ Girl participant knows all too well what it’s like to be a girl thriving in a historically male-dominated sport. “I didn’t know how to play soccer before I joined SKILLZ [Girl],” she says of her earlier years in Khayelitsha, South Africa. “I would just see people playing soccer and I wanted to know how to play.” Her determination paid off, and Entle is now a defender on her team. She’s currently the only soccer player in a family that includes three brothers.

“In my first year with SKILLZ [Girl], my school’s team won the matches and got a trophy,” Entle recalls, “so my teachers and principal are supportive of girls playing soccer.” In addition to empowering girls on the field, the program encourages inspiration off the field, too.  This particular Grassroot Soccer program pairs young female participants aged 10-14 with dynamic Coaches, creating an environment of discovery-based learning. The pairing of participants with a Coach in their peer group, although slightly older, has proven to be powerful as it opens up safe spaces for the participants to talk about sex, sexuality, gender, pregnancy and HIV.

With 2.1 million new infections each year, HIV remains one of the world’s most serious challenges. Young women are particularly at risk; rates of new infections among 15-19 year old girls in South Africa are up to 8 times higher than for boys of the same age. But the tide is turning. In sub-Saharan Africa, HIV prevalence among young men and women ages 15-24 fell by 42% from 2001 to 2012. Education is crucial in impacting adolescent behavior change.

“We practice on Mondays and Tuesdays, and we play matches on Wednesdays and Thursdays. We learn how to play soccer, and also about communication skills and respecting others.” Entle speaks fondly of her Coaches, relaying some of their most impactful messages: “My Coaches Zimasa and Tivoli tell us that we must love each other, we shouldn’t discriminate against people because of their colour, and we must care for each other because we are all people.” She adds, “We as participants all feel comfortable to talk to each other and our Coaches, because there is so much positive interaction and discussion. We praise each other with snaps and KILOs, which I also like.”

“My mom also thinks that the programme is good because of everything I’m learning,” Entle shares. “I share some of the stuff I learn with her, but not everything because I am shy … I do share the information with my friends though. I tell them messages from our Coaches, like how to behave, how to prevent yourself from getting HIV and other diseases.” She acknowledges that while SKILLZ [Girl] teaches participants about self care, the program also stresses the importance of community. “We must treat each other equally and love each other like we love ourselves. I think all young girls should be part of the Grassroot Soccer programmes so as to learn about these topics in a fun and safe way.”