By Helen Porter
Helen completed her PhD in Latin American Studies at the University of Liverpool. She has spent extended periods researching young peoples’ lives in Nicaragua and Bolivia and currently works researching projects working with young people involved in gangs in London.
‘Dale con todo Helen!’ or ‘Give it everything’, they shouted as I took my run up to the ball and struck with all the power I could muster. More often than not it dribbled harmlessly wide, but the cries of encouragement from my team mates and compañeras del equipo never failed to motivate, and once in a long while I was even rewarded with a ‘Golaazoo’. I had joined a women’s football team whilst researching my PhD in Leon, Nicaragua. To put it more accurately, researching the lives of the young women on the team had become my PhD, while training four times a week with matches on a Sunday followed by sun burn and sore muscles had become my daily routine as I played out the season with UNAN Leon during 2008.
Organised women’s football has existed in Nicaragua since 1960, but it is only more recently that the game has become the number one sport for women and girls, and the total number of registered players has grown from 800 in 2000 to over 7000 in 2006. Since 1998 the national championship has averaged around eight to ten teams from around the country. Popularity is growing but development is slow and limited largely by economic and cultural barriers.
There are strong motivations for girls and women to participate. Overwhelmingly football is an opportunity to escape the hassles and stress of everyday life, as well as a chance to socialise and relax with friends. A match day, for instance, is more than just the 90 minutes of football; it often involves travelling to towns and cities across Nicaragua that the players may have never visited, and it offers a unique opportunity to get to know their country. The main problem for women’s football teams
competing in the national league is a lack of funding, and they generally have to rely on the support of the players’ families and the institutions that they represent.
Perhaps more difficult to surmount though is the opposition girls and women face from wider society and deeply entrenched norms relating to appropriate behaviour for females. Ye Mehrdesto Besser started playing at age 12 and experienced playing in both the Nicaraguan Women’s First Division and representing her country at national level: ‘For me, it’s a way to relax and get away from stresses’.
The players often face opposition from the family, who see football as a waste of time and distraction from domestic responsibilities, while members of the public shout abuse such as ‘marimacha’ or ‘masculine Mary’ – a term used to describe lesbians in parts of Latin America. Indeed, social norms around appropriate behaviour for males and females features strongly in the opposition young women experience playing football and emanates from both the household and the street. But the players have been able to surmount this opposition to their participation: ‘The most difficult thing was to be accepted by other people, especially men’. Quickly they began to change wider opinion, ‘We won respect from others as we started to win games and showed we were committed to playing; then people realised that women can also do things that men do.’
Contemporary history in Nicaragua tells a story of a contradictory place for women; participation by women fighting for the FSLN during the revolution led to an image of militant motherhood and women had an unprecedented profile in politics and society. However, years of poverty, austerity and neoliberal economic scarcity followed.
Daniel Ortega’s return to leadership brought hope of a serious challengeto poverty and inequality, and his government has introduced some impressive gender policies such as gender quotas for political parties.However, teenage pregnancy rates, maternal mortality, domestic abuse and femicide, and a ban on therapeutic abortion continue to be serious problems. In addition, the government’s oppressive approach to organisations associated with the women’s movement has met with condemnation and withdrawal of funding from international donors. It is in this climate that female participation in football is able to establish a new arena for participation in public life and challenge traditional ideas of gendered roles and responsibilities.
While motherhood is an important part of their identity, these young women footballers prioritise education and independent financial security as essential to their futures. Unlike their male counterparts, women footballers have to study to survive, as Ye explains: ‘Most men play for money but we don’t have this luxury. For most of us we have to study to earn our money’. Playing for a university team in Nicaragua gives these female footballers the opportunity of a scholarship to study, and in some cases they are given accommodation and spending money.
Whilst playing football may be a means to an ends for many young women, it is clear, given the opposition they have encountered from wider society, they are challenging norms of behaviour. Moreover, they are taking advantage of a unique opportunity to achieve higher education qualifications, the possibility of accessing better paid work, and they are thoroughly enjoying the physical and social benefits of playing, along the way.