Female footballers in South Sudan are breaking down “taboo topics” relating to their personal health, thanks to a pilot project organised in the young nation.
“Girls and women’s football, it’s not just football, giving access to play the game, but it’s really tackling some of these social challenges or taboo topics,” Arijana Demirovic, the head of world governing body Fifa’s women’s football development, said.
In South Sudan, girls “struggle quite a lot around the topic of menstruation, menstrual hygiene and also access to sanitary products,” Bosnian-born Demirovic said.
Fifa estimates that 70% of women in the East African nation that gained independence in 2011, after six years of civil war did not have access to hygiene products, preventing girls from regularly attending school and practising sports.
Demirovic and her team visited the capital Juba several times, holding workshops with members of the national team, and distributing hygienic products and kits.
“We had to understand what they do for hygiene, what they know and what they use as traditional products,” said the 33-year-old.
“In Africa, too often young girls use inappropriate fabrics, mattress sponges or pieces of cut-out fabric,” Senegalese Yaya Helene Ndiaye, the president of the NGO Kitambaa, which accompanies Fifa in South Sudan, said.
“I was there from the first meeting,” South Sudanese international midfielder Esther Luis, who plays for Munuki FC in Juba, said.
“We were really happy that this type of project came to our country. I really appreciated it. In our culture, it’s not always easy to talk about this kind of subject.
“While most of my teammates understand that it’s just part of life, in rural areas it can sometimes be difficult to talk about.”
Through football “we can reach them,” said 19-year-old Luis, of girls who come from rural areas. “When their teammates explain it to them, they feel less embarrassed.”
Demirovic said she has been encouraged by the “positive feedback” that Fifa’s ‘Menstrual Health and Education through Football’ project had received and its success in “empowering girls to take care of their own health”.
“A lot of the girls told us that they use the sanitary pads, it also solves a question of budget for their families,” she said.
“They have shared information with their siblings.”
She added: “They’ve seen quite a lot of benefits of it and seeing how some of these girls’ lives have changed in a very positive way in a very short time.
“Coaches from other member associations have also approached us, not necessarily having access to the sanitary products but really making sure that girls do get to have this education on their menstrual cycle and how it impacts them and their performance.”
Demirovic said NGOs working in South Sudan were helping girls produce reusable pads themselves.
“In the future, they could even produce them locally, at low cost, and this would also help them in terms of economic empowerment,” she said.
“That’s a bit of a next step within the project to make sure that this type of initiatives are sustainable.
“South Sudan is a positive example of what football can do.”