By Kim Constantinesco
Fond des Blancs, Haiti. The region is 60 miles from Port au Prince, but it takes over four hours to get there by car.
Most of the population functions on subsistence level farming. Roughly 40,000 people live without electricity or public services. A large legion of people from this area don’t finish fifth grade. And one-third of the country is food insecure.
And women? They’re at a greater disadvantage, just because of their gender. Of the households that are headed by women, 60% live in extreme poverty. In the Haiti itself, only 29% of females attend secondary school.
The Haiti Projects soccer program is devoted to empowering girls and women, and driving them toward self-sufficiency, all while delivering health education messages along the way.
Cleats? Yes. Teen pregnancy? No.
In June, we spoke with Haiti Projects CEO and M.I.T professor Cherie Miot-Abbanat.
In rural Haiti, there’s a precarious region where girls’ soccer games draw an entire community; sometimes a bigger turnout, in fact, than boys’ games. Men and women travel from near and far to cheer for girls who have lavish footwork and sparkling competitive spirits. It’s not how Haiti usually does soccer.
“The girls love it. It gives them attention. It gives them status. It shows what women can do,” Haiti Projects CEO and M.I.T professor Cherie Miot-Abbanat said. “They’re not just people who fetch the water, or watch the kids, or have the kids. They’re out there competing against other teams.”
Fond des Blancs hosted its first ever girls soccer tournament in July. Four teams competed and 90 girls from all over Haiti between the ages of 12 and 22 reveled in a healthy dose of competition.
Never mind that it rained constantly in the week leading up to the tournament, forcing games out of the center of town and to smaller fields 30 minutes away. Male soccer players came to watch. Children served as ball boys and ball girls. And locals made it a business opportunity by selling soda and hotdogs to cheering fans.
As for the “home team” — Fond des Blancs? They took second place.
“After we have a game or tournament like that, we see a lot more girls coming to practices,” Haiti Projects Country Director Molly Klarman said. “It’s either new girls who come, or girls who have dropped out for whatever reason. It definitely re-motivates everybody and gets them excited.”
Really, everyone who participated in the tournament was the winner. Each girl received a sports bra for competing. The winning team also landed a pair of shorts, a backpack, and sunglasses.
They were exposed to health education messages, something extremely crucial in a region where there’s a strong belief that women should not use birth control until after they’ve had their first child.
“Only six percent of our clients don’t have a child already,” Klarman said of those who visit Haiti Projects’ health clinic. “About half of them are girls on the soccer team.”
In order to play on the Fond des Blancs soccer team, a try-out isn’t necessary. A contract is.
“All girls have to sign a contract saying they have to behave a certain way, and be respectful of their coaches and teammates,” Klarman said.
Many of the girls who play also take on jobs with the team such as washing uniforms or helping with food preparation.
“It’s giving these girls responsibilities where they’re getting compensated for it and learning job skills. These girls are learning what it take to be a good employee,” Klarman said.
During the summer, the team practices three times per week. Once school starts, it’s scaled back to twice a week. Because the country doesn’t have many girls’ soccer teams, Fond des Blancs only plays a real game once every three months or so.
That’s why Haiti Projects is offering their resources to three nearby communities so that they can develop their own girls’ soccer teams.
“We want to add a sportsmanship component,” Klarman said. “There were some bad sportsmanship issues during the tournament related to referee calls. Although the issues didn’t come from our team, we really want to reinforce this with them, so we can be sure they will always set a good example for others.”
With the success of July’s event, Haiti Projects plans to host a Fond des Blancs soccer tournament every summer.
Whether a team plays three games or makes it all the way to the finals and plays five games, the benefits extend well beyond the pitch.
The girls and women on the Fond des Blancs soccer team are taking control of their own bodies, pushing them to become better at soccer, and reeling them in to become independent and strong contributors to their community — one where being female, thankfully, doesn’t mean what it used to.