By Jeffrey Okoro
As the Women’s World Cup came to a close, it wasn’t just Spain that was celebrating. Girls and young women everywhere were watching and learning a powerful lesson.
The Spanish team’s win — its first ever — was celebrated around the world as a milestone for a country where women had to play on underground teams as recently as the 1970s because soccer was considered just for men.
Beyond the recent headlines, however, the Women’s World Cup serves an even more important role in helping connect at-risk girls and young women with mentors, serving as an entry point to education, and even helping them overcome deeply rooted ethnic divisions like here in Kenya.
I saw this firsthand on a recent Saturday in Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Kenya on the outskirts of Nairobi where I grew up and now manage a leading non-governmental organization, CFK Africa. It was the triumphant win of the Kibera Girls School Soccer Academy (KGSA), the first girls’ team from Kibera to make it to the highly competitive Kenyan Women’s Premier League.
Founded by Abdul Kassim, the KGSA team, which CFK Africa has been supporting, is one of a half-dozen young women’s soccer leagues in the community and is made up of 17- to 23-year-olds. They had come to play the final match as the official champions of Kenya’s Division 1 League before moving up to the Premier League.
Among the crowd were girls just a few years younger than the ones on the field. Their faces were lit up with possibility as they watched the older players weave around each other on the field.
Kenya has one of the oldest national women’s soccer teams, having started in 1985, the same year as the U.S. and just five years after Spain’s national team. It was a time when very few countries even had a national women’s soccer team.
The Kenya women’s national soccer team, known as the Harambee Starlets, didn’t make it to the World Cup this year, but with more opportunities for young girls to play soccer in our communities, it’s just a matter of time. As we often say at CFK Africa, talent is universal, but opportunity is not.
Even if they never become semi-professional athletes, young women in Kibera and in other informal settlements in Kenya benefit immensely from playing on these soccer teams.
The legendary Kenyan soccer player Rose Achieng first started playing girls soccer in Kibera in 2002 when she was just 10 years old. It was during a time when there were no other girls’ teams in Kibera, so they mostly played against boys.
Achieng, whose successful career in soccer was portrayed in the popular children’s book “Remarkable Rose,” told me she learned more than just the game on that team. It also introduced her to lifelong friends from different backgrounds and even helped her land a scholarship to pay her school fees so she could graduate from high school, when few families in Kibera could afford this kind of education.
At CFK Africa, we use the ready-made network of community girls’ soccer teams to connect players with mentors and peer counselors, leading workshops on basic hygiene, health education — including sexual and reproductive health — and advocacy rights for girls.
They come to our programs to learn dribbling, passing, and shooting, but they leave knowing about how to get a job and navigate the trials of young adulthood in some of the harshest living conditions.
Soccer can be used not just as a gateway to education, but to also help bridge ethnic barriers. Like Kibera, the women’s team I watched at that recent game and its fans were made up of various ethnic groups from Kenya, laughing and cheering, side by side.
It was a stark contrast to the recent wave of protests last month in our community over tax hikes and soaring inflation, which left dozens dead, including many residents of Kibera, a sprawling area where hundreds of thousands of people live with little to no regular government services.
In fact, I was first drawn to volunteer for CFK Africa by the youth sports tournaments it sponsors after I saw up close how they helped reduce ethnic tension in the wake of the disputed presidential election of 2007.
On the soccer field, these divisions melt away as players focus on working together. Soccer is, by its nature, a team sport. No single player can make it all the way down the field to score, and every defense requires a coordinated effort.
The same can be said of fighting economic disparity and gender equality in our community and around the world. Soccer teaches us that we can do great things when we work as a team and women’s soccer shows girls and young women that means them, too.
So as we all continue to watch the global phenomenon of women’s soccer, think of all the girls and young women around the world watching along with you.
And as we look forward to the next Women’s World Cup in 2027, who knows, some of them may even be out on the field.
Jeffrey Okoro is executive director of CFK Africa, which was founded in 2001 and works to improve public health and economic prosperity in informal settlements in Kenya through integrated health and youth leadership initiatives. Using a participatory development approach, the organization works directly with community residents to develop and implement sustainable programs. To learn more, visit www.cfkafrica.org.