Jeremy Barnett, from the British Council, explains how football is helping empower women and girls around the world, and shares the views of some of the women who have helped make the Premier Skills programme a success:
More than 365 million people watched the 2022 UEFA Women's Euro football championship and 50 million watched England beat Germany in the final.
Football, or soccer, depending on where you are, is the world’s most popular sport. FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, says there are approximately five billion football fans around the globe.
Traditionally a male dominated sport, women’s football is growing in popularity and influence, but the women’s game is still restricted or banned in many countries.
Even in the UK it is still relatively unusual for women to play football, with most schools restricting girls to the traditional female team sports of netball and hockey.
Sport can benefit all girls and women and it can be a life changer in countries where gender discrimination and inequality are particularly widespread.
Research commissioned by UEFA, the governing body of football in Europe, found that: ‘teenage girls who play football report higher levels of self-confidence than those who play other sports’. UEFA has committed to making football Europe's number one sport for girls.
Since 2007, the British Council has partnered with the Premier League to deliver the Premier Skills programme. We work with grassroots coaches and teachers around the world to help young people, including the most vulnerable in society, build better lives through the power of football.
With a particular emphasis on using football to empower women and girls, Premier Skills has a target of no less than 50% of female participation at programme level and encourages the inclusion of women and girls in all activities. The programme aims to address social issues specific to a country or region, including violence against women and girls, and female participation in sport.
In many societies, a woman’s role is confined to house and home. They are unlikely to have influence in society or even within their own families. This often means that access to sport is limited or even non-existent, so girls and women miss out on the health and other benefits of taking part in team sports.
Through its community coaches and teachers, Premier Skills encourages women and girls to take part in football. They are also positive role models for young people and future coaches, and bring invaluable personal knowledge of their communities.
Footballer and hockey player, Tanaz Hassan Mohammed, has worked as a community coach in Mumbai and is now a Premier Skills coach educator, she said:
“Barriers exist for girls, because of what they have been told since they were young. Coming from a Muslim community, I know the importance of making sure girls understand they can wear a hijab and still play football. What matters most is their participation.
“I organised a summer camp which initially attracted 1,200 boys and not a single girl. That’s when I decided to step up and present myself as a role model. The news of a female coach training on a ground where only male coaches had been seen before spread like wildfire. After engaging with mothers in the community, I had more than 500 girls, who hadn’t touched a football before, out on the field.”
In Kenya ‘The Addressing Violence Against Women and Girls Through Football’ programme ran in Kisumu and Mount Elgon in Western Kenya. The programme used football to address some of the behaviours and attitudes that give rise to high levels of violence against women and girls.
The programme combined football and education sessions to engage children and young people aged 10–20 years old, aiming to build positive relationships between participants, and challenge gender inequitable attitudes and behaviours that foster violence. Coaches were recruited from the communities and trained to deliver a curriculum focusing on knowledge, attitudes, life skills and behaviours, aiming to promote teamwork, fair play, self-confidence and respect for self and others.
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In Egypt the Premier Skills ‘1,000 Girls 1,000 Dreams’ project, delivered in partnership with Egypt’s Ministry of Youth and Sports, uses football as a tool to provide marginalised girls and community coaches with opportunities to develop skills and become better integrated into their local communities.
Participant Shahd told us: “At the beginning my parents didn't accept the idea of me playing football but I insisted on showing my skills and have proven that I can do anything!”
“Through my participation, my community is accepting the idea of girls playing football and that it is not for males only. Participating and winning matches gives me great satisfaction.”
Egyptian community coach, Al Shaimaa Hatem Mohamed El Meligy, decided to become involved with Premier Skills to help create a society more aware of the importance and benefits of sports and exercise, regardless of gender, age, or ability.
She said: “I have always had an ambition to change societal attitudes and I have used football and its popularity to tackle this. I wanted to promote the idea that girls can play and introduce sports to every house, and then encourage this initiative in my local community.”
Ugandan Premier Skills community coach, Ritah, started her football career as a participant in the programme. As a young single mother, caring for her disabled daughter and sick relatives, she missed out on education, and had little chance for personal development or even making friends.
This changed when she joined coach Anne Naiga’s Premier Skills project. Ritah started playing football with other young women in her community, increasing her confidence and making new friends.
With Anne’s help and experience as a social worker, Ritah was able to access help and support for her daughter and to start a further education course.
She said: “I am no longer stigmatised because of the disability of my daughter. I now share life’s challenges with others and as a result I’ve been able to get support from a disability organisation to improve my daughter’s speech.”
Since Premier Skills began in 2007, over 32,000 coaches, referees and teachers have been trained in 29 countries. They have returned to their communities to provide 1.7 million young people with opportunities to develop skills and become better integrated into their local communities.