One small step for a woman, one giant leap for Somali womankind at UN sports event

One small step for a woman, one giant leap for Somali womankind at UN sports event

As the rest of the world marked International Women’s Day today, girls at a United Nations refugee camp tucked away in a north-eastern corner of Kenya celebrated one small step for a woman, one giant leap for Somalia’s womankind with a special volleyball tournament.

As the rest of the world marked International Women’s Day today, girls at a United Nations refugee camp tucked away in a north-eastern corner of Kenya celebrated one small step for a woman, one giant leap for Somalia’s womankind with a special volleyball tournament.

When the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its corporate partner Nike launched their “Together for Girls” campaign in July 2004, less than 100 girls played sports compared to more than 5,000 boys in Dadaab, a three-camp complex hosting some 170,000 mostly Somali refugees.

None of the girls were from the mainly Muslim Somali community, which makes up 98 per cent of Dadaab’s refugee population. But today, more than 270 Somali refugee girls regularly play sports on the dusty camp facilities – mostly volleyball, but also badminton, handball, netball and football.

“This pilot initiative has gone a long way in really helping girls to come out of their houses and say, ‘Look, we can also play sports’,” Nemia Temporal, head of UNHCR’s Dadaab office said. The campaign also tallies with one of the core aims of the joint UNHCR-Nike-Microsoft ninemillion.org campaign – to get young female refugees more involved in sports.

Organizers of the initiative and sports coordinators in the camps have always faced a major obstacle in getting results – the Somali refugee community is still not sure if girls should play sports. Some conservative Muslims link sports with loose morals, while boys in the camp have on occasion thrown stones at girls returning home from sports activities.

Elizabeth Mwiyeria, the project’s sports coordinator who works for UNHCR’s implementing partner, the non-governmental organization (NGO) CARE, said the main opposition comes from parents and religious leaders. “They say girls should not play in public and people should not watch them when they are playing. Some say that when they [girls] play, they get strong and I think the men don’t like that,” she added.

But some hardened opponents have become fans, such as Arfon Hussein who took in Zahra Hussein Aden after the girl’s parents were killed in Somalia’s long civil war. Two years ago, Arfon threatened to kick the girl out of their camp home after she came back late from her first volleyball practice.

But after she explained that she had been invited by CARE and that there were only girls, her stepmother became positively enthusiastic and Zahra has since become the captain of the volleyball team for Somali refugee girls in Dagahaley camp.

She encouraged others to come and play and said that it not only kept her fit and healthy, but was also therapeutic in the monotonous routine of camp life. “When I joined the team in Dagahaley two years ago, we were only two Somali girls playing sports. Now there are 87 girls in different teams,” Zahra said.

Abshiro Aden Mohammed, a member of the female sports committee in Dagahaley, added, “Change is gradual and we will eventually come up with an educated community on sports.” She noted that many opponents had changed their minds after the benefits were explained to them. But Abshiro and her colleagues will still need to convince people like Sheikh Mohammed Noor Abdi Hussein.

“I as an individual would not encourage my daughter to play sports, but it is a matter for the community. I cannot impose my views, I can only give guidance,” said the sheikh, who wields influence in Dadaab’s Ifo camp as a kadi or Islamic judge. The sheikh advised that if girls must play outdoor games, they should wear appropriate clothing, play in secluded fields and have no interaction with boys.

Be that as it may, today aid workers are taking on a girls’ team drawn from Dagahaley and Ifo camps.