More Than Just A Game

By Jenn Warren, with reflections from Boitumelo Rakobo and Athiphila Sidondi

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In a region where youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services are incredibly hard to come by, underfunded and catered to adults, Grassroot Soccer champions a youth-friendly approach to interactive learning through the use of play and games, the language of sport, and sport routines. The organisation uses the power of soccer to connect young people with the mentors, information and health services they need to thrive, and empower adolescents to make educated choices about pressing health challenges such as HIV, sexual health and gender-based violence.

A Learning Organisation

Since Grassroot Soccer’s founding in 2002, research and innovation have been vital to its growth and development, shaping the organisation’s curriculum development, monitoring and evaluation processes, and strategy. More Than Just A Game is a report examining Grassroot Soccer’s sport and sexuality education programmes for adolescent girls in South Africa, since expanded throughout sub-Saharan Africa, with broader literature complemented by unique insights and recommendations from the organisation’s work.

Grassroot Soccer learns by evaluating its work scientifically, and has seen that the process of engaging adolescent girls in the development of a well-designed, sport-based, inclusive sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) programme can be gender transformative, and results in a range of positive outcomes for girls and their broader communities. Grassroot Soccer has also learnt that young people want to learn about sexuality more broadly, as opposed to separating issues such as HIV, gender, relationships, power, violence, safety, sexuality and identity.

“When we teach youth about sexual health, and especially girls, we do it in a way that they can relate to and therefore, they feel confident to ask us questions. As Coaches, we come in and speak in a manner they will understand and make it enjoyable. We make it easy for girls to open up, ask questions; they are given a platform to ask whatever they like.”

The organisation recognises that young people are too diverse an audience to group together meaningfully in sexuality education and is striving to understand the ways in which sex, age, gender and socialisation shape what is appropriate messaging for adolescents. Youth must be involved in these processes, and organisations must work with adolescents and peer educators to design interventions that relate to their identities and experiences.

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Grassroots Insights

More Than Just A Game, published with support from the Ford Foundation Southern Africa, draws on recent Grassroot Soccer research projects in South Africa to illustrate sport’s potential as a communication platform in sexuality education, in particular for adolescent girls. Five broad themes emerged from these projects, highlighting the unique contributions that well-designed Sport for Development initiatives can make to improve sexuality education and SRHR outcomes:

  1. Sport is engaging
  2. Sport is physical
  3. Sport is gendered
  4. Sport is empowering
  5. Sport is about relationships

The Grassroot Soccer Approach

“In our communities, we need good role models who are going to influence the children in a positive manner so when they grow up they can become people they are proud of and make good decisions. The community does need Coaches like me, on more than just a Coach level only, but for adults and young adults too.”

  • Adolescents learn best from people they respect. Positive role models have the unique power to influence young minds. Adolescents listen to and emulate their heroes.
  • Learning is not a spectator sport. Adolescents engage in critical thinking, awareness and sharing when they are active participants in the learning process, teaching others what they themselves have learnt.
  • It takes a village. Role models can change what young people think about, but learning and behaviour change requires support from parents and guardians, educators, peers and the community.

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Agents of Change

Young people – and particularly young women and girls – benefit from having positive role models and peer support outside of the traditional structures. A Grassroot Soccer Coach’s ability to build relationships with her participants and create a positive learning environment is the foundation for the organisation’s sexuality education programming.

“Gender-based violence is not an easy thing to deal with especially if you are growing up being exposed to it. But if you have someone who is a role model in your life, someone who you are able to talk to, it becomes easier for you to unload and that person can watch you grow and help you deal with it and heal.”

With proximity in age, language and culture, female participants see their Coaches as credible sources of information about sexuality and trusted confidants, which supports participants to adopt healthy behaviours, gain a more personal insight to the positive or negative consequences of those actions, and be more likely to disclose traumatic experiences. In an effort to connect with participants and generate dialogue on taboo subjects, Grassroot Soccer Coaches also utilise a powerful oral storytelling technique called the Coach’s Story, to share their personal experiences during set times throughout the programme. This exercise also encourages participants to practice active listening, voice their concerns and experiences, and hear firsthand how their Coach overcame similar struggles.

Further to this, Grassroot Soccer, in collaboration with StoryCenter, the Ford Foundation, U.S. Consulate General and American Corner Cape Town Central Library, led a digital storytelling and participatory media workshop with an inspiring group of female Coaches in March 2016. The young women came together to overcome representational gender stereotypes through crafting and sharing their own digital stories around the topics of overcoming gender-bias in sport, surviving gender-based violence, and the resilience it takes to thrive in spite of deeply entrenched structural obstacles to education and viable employment.

Capturing a story can change the world. Telling it definitely does. Digital Storytelling is a participatory exercise in self-confidence, reflection, awareness and voice. Watch Grassroot Soccer Coach Athiphila (Athi) Sidondi’s tale of gender, soccer and becoming a leader.

“Being a girl that loved soccer among the boys turned me into a bully, to protect what I wanted to be and what I wanted to have. So let me take you back…

In Being a Girl Amongst the Boys, Athi highlights the gap that adolescent girls in South Africa experience when it comes to female role models in sport, and points to the importance of mentorship to break down harmful gender norms, and encourage dialogue and behaviour change. Athi’s story, along with the other six women’s digital stories, also forms part of the More Than Just A Game report.

The report and accompanying digital stories are intended for communities, families and educators, development practitioners, research institutions, governments and donor agencies. The work is dedicated to all of Grassroot Soccer’s communities, partners and supporters who continue to strive for gender justice and the wellbeing of adolescent girls across South Africa. Grassroot Soccer hopes that the insights herein will help to guide the design of future interventions and research on the use of sport in sexuality education.

About Grassroot Soccer

Grassroot Soccer is an international adolescent health organisation that leverages the power of soccer to educate, inspire and mobilise youth to overcome their greatest health challenges, live healthier, more productive lives and be agents for change in their communities.