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Celebrate Solutions: Transforming Gender Norms Through Soccer and Sports (wo)manship in Cambodia

By: Lindsay Menard-Freeman, Women Deliver

There has never been a timelier occasion to highlight the impact that soccer (or football, or fútbol) has on individuals, communities, and nations than the World Cup. The sport can unify and empower, and provides a platform for  global dialogue about teamwork, leadership, and comradery. But community soccer clubs for girls can be wrought with complexity as they defy deeply engrained gender norms and challenge the status quo.

The Salt Academy, an organization based in Cambodia working to develop young leaders through a sustainable community-based football league, has a program for girls called Mighty Girls, designed to respond to this exact challenge and combat trafficking into forced labor.

Battambang, Cambodia is a major source and transit hub for trafficking, especially for uneducated girls from rural areas. Although the province of Battambang is known as the “Rice Bowl” of Cambodia due to its fertile land, many of its inhabitants survive on an average wage of 1,800 Riel per day, or half a US dollar, putting many below the absolute poverty threshold of 1.25 US dollars per day.

Mighty Girls recognizes the risk that girls face, and provides a safe alternative and opportunities for peer-to-peer education through coaching and outreach in rural villages. Founded in 2010, Mighty Girls has grown to include more than 20 girls, aged 12-20, who receive special support in both education and football. The major goal of the program is to prevent individual cases of human trafficking by empowering and supporting exceptional young female players in education and training. This approach has four objectives: support young women as role models at the local level; provide a safe space; improve education; and challenge gender discrimination.

In Cambodia, for girls to play football means that they challenge nearly everything it means to be a woman. Khmer girls are supposed to be gentle, reserved and obedient. Playing football defies those traditions for Khmer girls, and more and more girls and young women are redefining those gender norms through Mighty Girls.

Women remain underrepresented in higher education and positions of leadership in Cambodia. By supporting top-level academic scholarships and ensuring one-on-one mentoring, Mighty Girls utilizes the positive effects of team sports to build the next generation of female leaders.Women’s football in Cambodia is nascent, yet the impact of girls succeeding in a traditionally male-dominated sport is already challenging gender discrimination throughout society. The Mighty Girls team advance some of the most promising female football players in the country and help form the core of the Cambodian Women’s National Team. Additionally, the Mighty Girls won the last three National Women’s Football Championships.

Although the region has seen improvements since the devastating Khmer Rouge regime, it still bears lasting scars. Schools, families and entire communities remain destroyed. Four million landmines remain a hazard. The average age is 22, and more than 50 percent of the population is under 21. But programs like Mighty Girls provide young women of Cambodia with hope for their future, and for the future of Cambodia.

Photo credit Salt Academy

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