GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo – On the dusty soccer field of a high school in Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), coach Claire Kabongo emerges from a team of boys and dashes off to check on the girls. “Faster, Camille!” she shouts to one of the students, running alongside her.
Kabongo, 36, has been teaching children and young adults soccer for eight years. And in the past few years, she’s seen some positive changes on the field. “Until recently, soccer used to be seen as a predominantly male sport, and the majority of my students were boys,” Kabongo says. “But in recent years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of girl students. People are starting to understand that there’s absolutely no reason why girls shouldn’t play soccer.”
As DRC continues to be torn apart by the deadliest conflict since World War II, with more than 5 million civilians killed, soccer offers people a respite. It’s the most popular sport in the country, and they’re good at it: The national team has won the African Cup of Nations three times. With grassroots interest in the sport growing among people from all different backgrounds, girls are discovering it as a way to break cultural norms and challenge the gender roles in Congolese society.
For the past two years, Camille, 14, has been attending Kabongo’s classes whenever she can. “When I first started, people around me were a bit surprised and told me soccer wasn’t a sport suitable for girls,” she says. “But my family kept encouraging me to play it. I had other girls from my neighborhood joining me at practice. When people see us playing well, it convinces them we can do many other great things that are not ‘meant’ for girls.”
The support Camille gets from her family to keep playing is something few Congolese girls experience. One of the poorest countries on earth with one of the lowest Human Development Indicators, the Democratic Republic of Congo is considered one of the “worst places to be a woman.” According to the Social Institutions and Gender Index of the OECD Development Centre, 63 percent of Congolese women have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives – and 76 percent of women think that violence could be “justified.” More than two-thirds of girls who go to school drop out before they finish their primary education, and over 35 percent marry before they reach the age of 18.
Although soccer can’t directly solve the issues Congolese girls face every day, Kabongo believes the sport can help give girls the strength to overcome them.
“When girls come here and play soccer, they experience a self-confidence boost. They learn to lead and be independent. It’s so much more difficult to [be violent] toward a woman who has these traits,” she says. “Also, while playing together, boys learn to be nicer toward girls.”
According to Moya Dodd, a Congolese advocate for women’s soccer and a board member at FIFA, the influence of the game is bigger than whatever happens on the field. “When girls and women are excluded from soccer, it sends the message that they can also be excluded from society,” she says. “Including girls in soccer not only gives them the benefits of health and learning that their brothers have, it also helps society see them differently … In turn, women’s participation in education and the workforce is a huge lever to benefit all of society.”
And soccer doesn’t just help bridge gender divides, Kabongo says. By bringing together children from different sides of the conflict, the sport gives them the chance to share their aspirations for peace, tolerance and reconciliation. “Boys, girls, different ethnicities or religions don’t matter on the soccer field,” she says.
Women’s soccer in DRC is still in its infancy. But on a continent that produces some of the most talented players in the world, Kabongo is confident that the game can eventually help tackle gender inequality.
“Every day, I keep telling my female students that women can do anything men can do,” she says. “And soccer is a good place to start.”
This story was written with the support of an African Great Lakes Fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation.