She persists: Sport is a tool for empowering girls in Brazil

Date: Monday, April 6, 2020

UN Women and the International Olympic Committee’s programme, “One Win Leads to Another” gives tools of empowerment to girls and young women from vulnerable communities across Brazil through weekly sport practice and life skills training.

In February, before coronavirus containment measures were put in place, some girls from the programme met the international football star and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Marta Vieira da Silva.

Now, as the girls are confined to their homes due to the COVID-19 crisis, the sense of hope and empowering messages that many of them got from meeting Marta is even more meaningful.

Kathely Rosa, 19, pictured center with ball, with other graduates of the One Win Leads to Another programme in Brazil. Photos: UN Women/Camille Miranda
Kathely Rosa (centre with ball) with other other graduates of the One Win Leads to another programme in Brazil. Photo: UN Women/Camille Miranda

Kathely Rosa, 19, lives in Maré, a small and vulnerable community in the north of the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She lives with her mother, who raised her singlehandedly, and her younger brother lives nearby with an aunt.

To play football is Kathely’s biggest passion and the first thing she does in the morning.

Kathely is a goalkeeper, a challenging position for someone with a height of 1.55 meters (five feet), but that doesn’t stop her from playing hard and protecting the net.

When Kathely first shared her dream of becoming a professional football player, people around her said football was a boy’s thing. When she tried to play with the boys, they refused and would only allow her to watch.

Her brother, four years younger, had a completely different experience, and took football lessons from an early age. “He had a ball, a complete uniform, the opportunity to train at a club, money to participate in championships and selection processes. I got nothing,” says Kathely.

But a passion is a passion. And Kathely decided to coach herself, watching videos online to learn the tactics and practicing alone.

One day, she was searching various ways of dribbling and found a video showing 20 different ways that Brazilian football player Marta Vieira da Silva used to score a goal.

“That was how I found out about her,” remembers Kathely. “I learned football mainly from male figures, because women’s football is not that visible. I was just fascinated when I saw what Marta could do with a ball.”

On 22 February, Kathely Rosa, along with 15 girls from One Win Leads to Another (OWLA), a joint programme with UN Women and the International Olympic Committee that provides weekly sport practice and life skills sessions for adolescent girls, fulfilled another dream — she met Marta in person in Rio.

Marta was being honoured by a samba school that day for her incredible journey as a football player and as a role model for women and girls in and off the field.

The girls from OWLA were invited to be part of the samba parade, preceding Marta’s float, and representing the younger generations inspired by her. Earlier, while girls were rehearsing the lyrics of the parade song, Marta showed up as a surprise.

“To me it is a great honour to be here with you. Whenever I hear a little of your stories and get to know about the important things you are learning in the programme, this becomes a source of hope to me,” said Marta. “It makes me realize that we are doing the right thing to empower girls to reach their goals and do what they want, even if society believes it is something made for men. I’m really happy to be here with you.”

“Marta is the greatest inspiration for the girls of the One Win Leads to Another. During the life skills sessions of the programme, they often cite her as a reference to be followed. To have the opportunity to meet her in person, to be seen and heard by her and to listen to Marta say, ‘you can do it’, is a powerful way to inspire the girls to keep fighting their battles and striving for change,” said Thays Prado, UN Women Global Sports Programme Coordinator.

Global soccer star and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Marta Vieira da Silva with young rugby player Hingride Marcelle Leite de Jesus. Photo: UN Women/Camille Miranda
Global soccer star and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Marta Vieira da Silva with young rugby player Hingride Marcelle Leite de Jesus. Photo: UN Women/Camille Miranda

Hingride Marcelle Leite de Jesus, a 20-year-old rugby player and participant of the OWLA programme was just as thrilled to meet Marta.

Like Kathely, the resistance she faced when she first started playing rugby strengthened her resolve: “I realized that a woman playing rugby changes people’s minds about what we are able to do. Through rugby, I learned to make choices, to understand what I should focus on and what I had to let go, to respect my limits and to express myself more effectively.”

Hingride has been part of the programme since 2019 and now uses every opportunity that she gets to talk to her mother and other female family members about women’s rights.

“As women, we lack spaces where we can talk about our issues, ask questions and express our opinions,” explains Hingride. “This is what I appreciate the most about the One Win Leads to Another programme—the creation of safe spaces for girls.”

“I joined the programme to keep playing rugby. But then I realized how important was to go there weekly and talk with other girls from various backgrounds, about our bodies, about gender, race, sexuality, and about violence. Thanks to that safe space, I could share things I never had the courage to tell anyone before.”

However, Hingride and others have lost access to this vital community and safe space during the COVID-19 crisis, as containment measures keep the girls at home. Without the weekly practice, the girls are left to face potentially dangerous situations at home on their own, many without internet access as well.

When containment measures are lifted, the girls will need the supportive community that OWLA provides more than ever. It is crucial that recovery strategies prioritize building back grassroots sports programmes for women and girls and that resources are available for girls that may have been affected by gender-based violence and other challenges during the crisis.

Even before the COVID crisis brought life to a halt, Hingride was already taking action to help her community in the future. She has completed a training to become a sports trainer, setting her on the path to become a facilitator for the OWLA programme and work with younger girls in her community.

Kathely Rosa is also making a difference in her community. With time and effort, boys have started accepting her on their teams. As the only girl who can play on the boys’ team, Kathely works hard to set a good example. 

“I need to prove that I am as good as they are, that I am not fragile, and that other girls can play as well as I do,” she says. “Because these boys are still young, my example can help them open their minds and understand that women can achieve anything.”

This is also why she picks female teams when playing video games with her brother.

Kathely is now preparing for the exams to enter a public university. Inspired by her mother, the only woman in her family with a university degree, she wants to become a physical education teacher—a profession that will position her to empower her community with health and team-building activities.

In the months and years of COVID-19 crisis recovery to come, these services, and those provided by sports for development programmes like OWLA, will be an essential part of building back connections and gender-equal opportunities in the community of Maré.

“There are a lot of girls with so much talent. They just need to be properly trained,” says Kathely. “I will graduate, become a coach and create a female’s football team with girls from the favela. Marta told me that if I truly believe in what I want to do, nothing is impossible. It may sound like an obvious advice, but I needed to hear that from her. She said I need to focus and persist, and I will make it.”