Earlier this week, NPR released a report titled Mean Boys Can’t Keep Girls Off the Soccer Field: #15Girls. #15Girls is a special series about 15-year-old girls seeking to take control and change their fates. This particular episode hit me deep, as I’ve spent the past few months working with girls in Granada, Nicaragua with a similar goal in mind: using fútbol as a vehicle for positive change.
The NPR report follows two girls, Lahis María Ramos Veras (14) and Milena Medeiros dos Santos (16), who face relentless teasing and taunts every time they take the pitch to practice. I can only imagine – here in Granada, the Fútbol Sin Fronteras girls and their peers face giggles and smirks from boys who sit and watch pickup games during gym classes, pervasive sexism in relation to traditional notions of girls’ abilities as athletes and roles in society more generally. These girls’ very identities as futbolistas – as the report clearly states – mean that they are engaged in a “subversive act” that puts them in direct conflict with societal norms. After all, they are breaking ancient brick wall barriers and entering into what’s been viewed as a male space for all of eternity.
In the early 1900s, women’s soccer flourished in Brazil (there were up to 40 teams in Rio alone!), but in 1941 a ban was put into place – a literal law – that stated that women would “not be allowed to practice sports which are considered incompatible to their feminine nature.” Yeah. So for almost four decades, until 1979, that was that.
Although the law no longer exists, the report writes that “a social ban is still in effect. A girl who wants to play soccer faces teasing and taunting.” Just look at the unequal fortunes of Marta and Neymar if you need a macro-level example; while the former has struggled to find leagues that will support her, the latter was transferred to Barcelona for over 57 million euros.
Despite obstacles around every corner (the article quotes Guillherme Silva saying that “women’s soccer faces a serious lack of institutional fighting”), Lala and Milena are paving the way like their Nicaraguan counterparts here in Granada. The beautiful game is expanding the realm of what’s possible for these girls, providing educational opportunities, and allowing them to break dangerous cycles and gain access to positions of equal respect and value in previously male-dominated spaces.
What sort of “dangerous cycles” am I referring to here? Lala has a friend in Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil, who is ten years old. This ten-year-old child is pregnant.
Lala contemplates: “I think if she played soccer, would she be pregnant right now?”
Let that sink in.