Girls’ Basketball Bounces Back in Somalia
Once banned from sports, women and girls are returning to the court to reclaim their freedom.
Somalia has struggled to shed its perception as a failed state, riddled by conflict, terrorism and deprivation. As the country stabilizes, people from many regions are returning to a life they once knew, regaining freedoms that they lost slowly over a 20-year period.
Sports was one casualty of the country’s fall into ruin. At first, playing sports was considered shameful, and then it was made illegal.
Faizo Abdullahi, a former basketball player, explained: “Before the civil war in 1991, my peers and I had the freedom to play. Afterwards, and especially when extremist ideology started to spread here, women and girls were banned from sports.”
Today, 40 girls from Garowe, the capital of Puntland, Somalia, participate on four basketball teams that have strong names reflecting hope — Horsed,Sahn, Waxol and Rugta Ganacsiga (Ahead, To a better place, United and Diverse Opportunity). They play regularly and, with the support of their families and friends, are attracting record turnouts at their games.
USAID is part of this effort to empower youth, especially girls, through community-based sports programing.
This program encourages local governments to consult and plan activities collaboratively with clan elders, men and women leaders and youth. Through community dialogue sessions, all parties jointly prioritize projects that best meet the needs of citizens. The process — and its outcomes — are essential to the stabilization of regions that have suffered from mistrust, conflict and turmoil for decades.
“People who used to shame us, now clap for us.”
In Garowe, citizens identified sports as an integral part of the community. They believe sports can bring families together and offer youth active and healthy options in their lives.
In early 2015, USAID helped organize the first girls’ basketball camps and tournaments to take place in Garowe since 1991. Two new basketball teams were officially created, given new uniforms and equipment, and coached intensively for weeks. The two teams have expanded to four and now have a number of games lined up in fall 2016. A girls’ sports steering committee was also formed to organize and support the basketball teams.
This steering committee consists of members of the Puntland Ministries of Labor, Youth and Sports; Women’s Development and Family Affairs; and Education; as well as teachers, sports experts, women players and community members. They have developed an action plan, including an awareness campaign; located safe spaces for women to play all across Puntland; trained male and female coaches in all 38 districts; and incorporated physical education into primary and secondary education for girls.
“It is clear that Somalis can see that their local governments work for them and have succeeded in providing beneficial services,” said Tyler Beckelman, chief of USAID’s Somalia field office.
Aniso Abdiazis, one of the female basketball players, said, “Since we started playing, community perception of us has completely changed. People who used to shame us, now clap for us.”
In Kismayo, a city on the southern coast of Somalia, families were under al-Shabaab rule for five years. Girls were sometimes taken from their families and forced into marriage against their will. Participation in sports for young girls was even punishable by death under al-Shabaab. Many parents reacted by not allowing their daughters to leave home unattended.
Now that al-Shabaab has been removed from Kismayo, girls are putting on their sneakers and uniforms and getting out of the house to play sports. Thirty-one girls have participated in USAID basketball training and are now playing basketball together regularly.
Another player, Nura Abdi, said, “Sports has the potential to create trust, and allow us women to unite and come together as one. The training gave us the opportunity to overcome our fears, and has provided a stage for us to express ourselves in a positive way.”
The popularity of the games is attracting the attention of top officials in Somalia. The minister of social affairs, and a big fan of the program, remembers Kismayo’s fame for their women’s basketball team in the 1980s. “As a government, we want to encourage young women and girls to compete nationally and internationally,” he said. “The basketball camps and tournaments have brought back the pride that we once had.”
Unfortunately, there are still many hurdles for women who which to pursue sports. The fear of rape and al-Shabaab recruitment still may stop families in other parts of Somalia from allowing their daughters to leave their homes unaccompanied. Many communities still do not understand the value of sports for girls. There are very few well-maintained sports facilities, and almost no governmental mechanisms nor the resources to promote and sponsor it. But despite these obstacles, communities are seeing the value of sports for youth.
“These changes in attitudes are opening the court for a future generation that may grow up in a society that is more nurturing to their needs,” says Cael Savage, USAID’s team leader for the Transition Initiatives for Stabilization program. “As girls find venues to express themselves, they are empowered to reach higher goals that strive to improve not only their own welfare, but that of their society. The hope and confidence that a better life is achievable with the support of their leaders will ultimately lead to an environment that enables peaceful dialogue and change.”
USAID’s Transition Initiatives for Stabilization program has supported Somali citizens and governments for more than five years. USAID has constructed or rehabilitated 23 sports facilities, supplied 150 soccer and basketball teams with uniforms and balls, and supported over 30 sports events reaching over 50,000 at-risk youth across Somalia. Community-based sports programs contribute to the Agency’s stabilization goals in Somalia and provide healthy alternatives to violent extremism, promote community cohesion, and strengthen citizens’ trust in local government.
About the Author
Karla Christensen is the development outreach and communications specialist with USAID’s Kenya and East Africa mission, Somalia field office.
This story was originally published in the September/October 2016 issue of FrontLines, USAID’s bimonthly online magazine.