“My friends sometimes tease me for behaving like a boy simply because I play football,” says Mwanakombo Matano, a charming chatty girl who just completed her primary school education this year.
“They discourage me from playing soccer saying it is for men but no amount of dissuasion will dampen my resolve to pursue something I am so passionate about,” says the 16-year-old girl who sat her Kenya Primary School Education (KCPE) exams at Viongwani Primary School in Matuga Sub-county, Kwale County.
She says that the criticism does not bother her at all as she is a talented footballer. “I have decided to ignore the disapproving voices and follow my heart’s desire,” said Matano who was accompanied by her mother, Nimaneno Mwakuzimu, at a girls’ soccer contest held at Mwangaza Primary School recently.
The two were among participants at this year’s Matuga Girls’ Football Champions Finals League organized by a community-based organization (CBO), ‘Moving the Goalposts’ (MTG), as part of an ongoing campaign intended to empower girls and women through soccer.
The CBO organizes girls and women football programmes in coastal region to empower them after many years of suppression.
Young Matano is among about 800 girls who are benefitting under the MTG’s sports initiative. She confesses that the project has enabled her to release her previously latent talent in soccer. Before that, simple game of football was her specialty in the village.
During the championship that attracted four teams, little Matano, wowed the crowd with her amazing skills of swiftly dribbling the ball around the pitch.
She caught the eyes of many with her superb energy which was on display during her team’s thrilling match against Bila Shaka Primary School.
As top scorer of the day, Matano, was declared the best player, an achievement she says came through great sacrifice and discipline.
When MTG came calling last year, she enrolled because football was always her passion and she hopes that one day she will carry a championship title in major tournaments.
She said she would make use of the opportunity offered by the organization not only to excel in football but also gain confidence as a girl to face life’s challenges.
Women’s soccer is gaining popularity in the region as exemplified by Kwale Girls Secondary School winning the Brookside East Africa Secondary School Games held in Rwanda this year.
Matano’s mother said she is impressed by her daughter’s love for soccer, noting that sporting activities motivates and help girls keep away from deviant behaviours.
Apart from supporting her daughter in football she is also encouraging her to take education seriously for a better future.
“My daughter has reached puberty and I usually explain to her the danger of getting into reckless relationship with boys,” said Mwakuzimu.
According to MTG Director, Ms. Dorcus Amakobe, the aim of the initiative is to empower girls in the region which is grappling with rampant teenage pregnancies and early marriages.
The idea is to use soccer among other activities to enable local girls and women to believe in themselves so that they can also take responsibilities previously viewed as a preserve of men.
Within the county, the national exams were marred by two incidents of KCPE candidates who wrote the exam in hospital after giving birth.
To tackle the menace of rising unwanted pregnancies, Amakobe said they have been engaging girls in activities that will assist them in making rational decisions about their lives.
“Apart from soccer, we also use such occasions to educate the girls on reproductive health,” said Ms. Amakobe.
She blamed inability by girls to make calculated decisions, lack of information on reproductive health for the pregnancies and early marriages noting that most adolescents are not aware of their bodily changes.
“We aim at enrolling as many girls as possible so that they can benefit from this initiative as it offers them an opportunity to build confidence and also appreciate the benefits of maternal health,” she said.
The organization, she said, has also come up with a youth peer provider program linking girls to health centres for counseling on HIV/AIDS, Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), abstinence as well as the use of contraceptives.
In addition, she noted that children’s games help them stay fit and improve life skills hence parents should encourage them to take part in them.
This comes amid a fresh wave of public outcry in the county over the wave of early teenage pregnancies and deteriorating education standards among girls.
Statistics given by MTG show 40 percent of teenage girls in the region are pregnant.
The Kwale Welfare Education and Association (KWEA) Chief Executive Officer, Ms. Sabina Saiti told parents in the area to properly guide their children to find a purpose in life, further expressing concern that some girls are even forced into prostitution to cater for needs of their poor families.
By Shaban Omar/James Muchai