The Olympics brings meaning to African girls

by Because I am a Girl

Friday night, as the London Olympic Stadium glittered and the MC boomed the names of the world’s countries one by one, a teenage athlete from Niger seemed to encapsulate how these great Games represent something far more important than winning or losing.

Niger women’s 100m sprinter Nafissa Souleymane, 19, hails from a country with one of the highest instances of child marriage in the world. In Niger, a landlocked country currently crippled by a dual food and refugee crisis, teenage girls younger than Souleymane are already married with children, without schooling or opportunity.

As the London Olympics raced off the starting blocks, for the first time in history, every single competing country has female athletes as part of its Olympic team. It is a vision of hope for girls in Africa, who face double discrimination due to their gender and age, leaving them at the bottom of the social ladder. Traditional homemakers and child bearers are prevented from going to school, let alone playing sport. The older generation often considers sport inappropriate for girls. Research has shown that girls are more likely to suffer from malnutrition; be forced into an early marriage; be subject to violence or intimidation; be trafficked, sold or coerced into the sex trade - or become infected with HIV.

Last year, I spoke to girls in Dakar, Senegal, about sports. Teenagers are noticeably coming out of their shell here. In the last few years, girl joggers have appeared on the paved, palm-lined corniche that winds around the coast, and a girls’ volleyball team plays regularly and expertly at one of the city’s main beaches every weekend, dressed in sports gear and head coverings called hijabs.

In the district of Yoff, near the beach, a girls’ rugby team now meets every week. The girls I watched practicing at a mixed rugby practice evening were confident and energetic, clearly loving being involved in sport – and very good at it. On the pitch with the boys’ team, some were invited to play alongside the boys. These teenagers, boys and girls, didn’t blink an eyelid at mixing up the teams.

Further south in Togo and Ghana, girls’ football projects run by Plan are proving that getting girls involved in sport has multiple benefits. Girls are learning important leadership and decision-making skills; increasing in confidence and knowledge.

These girls will, I’m sure, be excitedly watching Cameroon's women’s soccer team represent Africa at the Games. Similarly, the women’s handball team from Angola and the women’s volleyball side from Algeria - Africa's only women's volleyball side in the contest – sends a strong, empowering message to all teenage girls across the continent. And Botswana’s Amantle Montsho, a runner who has an excellent chance of bringing home her country's first Olympic medal for the 400 metres, will provide teenagers with an inspiring example of a girl who has made it to the Olympics against all odds.

Celebrated by their communities as they win matches, suddenly these girls are being noticed. To see the jubilant women participants from Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Benin and 48 other African nations parade on Friday was certainly a step forward for girls. There is far to go of course – in Africa, Olympic athletes of both sexes face innumerable obstacles to even get started on the path of competitive sport.

This morning, Britain is won over by Souleymane’s indefatigable teammate, Niger rower Hammadou Djibo Issaka, who rowed over the finishing line to raucous applause a full minute and 39 seconds after the winner. Bearing in mind that Niger is completely landlocked, and that he took up rowing three months ago, I reckon Issaka did well to even compete. His very presence will at least make people wonder where Niger is in the world – and possibly start to notice its problems.

And it is these moments that make the Olympics Games so great. It doesn’t matter whether they win or lose at London 2012. All the African women competing here have already won.