Women's football scores in fight against AIDS

Changing perceptions, playing football
Changing perceptions, playing football

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Changing perceptions, playing football 07:22

Story highlights

  • Jacqui Shipanga is the coach of Namibia's national women's football team
  • She is using the sport as a tool for social change and to promote unity in the country
  • For years, it was culturally taboo for girls to play football in Namibia
As coach of Namibia's national women's football team, Jacqui Shipanga is credited with changing attitudes to the sport.
But to Shipanga football is more than a game -- it's a way to help society and improve the lives of girls around her country.
"I'm the type of coach at this point of time that is more willing to support social change and build and contribute towards nation building and reconciliation, instead of just the end result of what is happening on the pitch," she says.
Shipanga recently launched a six-team women's super league in a bid to increase the pool and quality of players available for Namibia's national squad -- but that is not her only goal.
"For the players themselves, it keeps them off the street, it keeps them busy," she says. "We've had a lot of teenage pregnancies in the past and nowadays girls are thinking of postponing that because there's a league coming.
"We will be touring to the other regions, to the other towns, but all in all it's about exposing their skills and showing their abilities in what they can do."
For Shipanga, coaching the national side of a country with a history of racial segregation and a present dominated by struggles against poverty and HIV/AIDS comes with additional responsibilities.
"We are a nation currently ranked top in the world with regard to the HIV infection rate and we have seen a decrease in terms of teenage pregnancy of all the girls that are part of all the leagues that are part of our programs," says Shipanga.
"We have seen how parents are also coming out on different days that we are launching for HIV and AIDS testing and this is obviously very important for our country," she adds. "That's why we have seen big organizations such as UNICEF investing in girls' football ... in order to raise awareness regarding social change."
Initiatives like "Galz & Goals," sponsored by UNICEF, aim to use football as a platform to raise awareness of health and social responsibility in Namibia.
Women's football might be contributing to society now, but 35-year-old Shipanga remembers that things were very different when she was growing up in the southern African country
"A girl couldn't play football, not even participate in sports," she recalls. "Just running, normal jogging, was regarded as taboo."
Although football has always been part of life in Namibia, for years it was culturally unacceptable for girls to participate in the sport.
Those perceptions failed to deter Shapinga from following her passion for the game.
Shapinga's football journey began some two decades ago, playing with the boys of her neighborhood despite the disapproval of her family and community.
"Girls were not encouraged to participate in sport because there were all these different type of myths: you're not going to be fertile, you're not going to get married one day, you're not going to have the so-called happy ending that would make any mother proud," Shapinga says.
Unfazed by the difficulties, she continued to play her favorite sport during her college years, when she started making a name for herself. Word of her talent quickly spread and when a women's national football squad was formed in the early 2000s she was called up.
In 2006 she was made national coach and soon caught the eye of football governing body FIFA, which appointed her an international coaching instructor in 2008.
Shapinga, who's also a member of FIFA's world cup technical study group, says that women's football is today the number one female sport in Namibia.
Despite that, Namibia is ranked 114th in the world and has only recently started investing in grooming young talent.
But while the country struggles to compete on the international stage, Shipanga says the success of projects like "Galz & Goals" is having a positive impact on communities and is boosting the self esteem of the young girls participating.
"The girls are getting the necessary respect in the community because everyone is asking them: Are you also part of the football team?'" she says. "They are seen as role models within the communities and I think it's really awesome."