Breaking traditions – why more refugee girls are turning to sports in Rwanda’s camps
Sports are playing an ever-greater role in the work of the UNHCR to bring positive value to children’s lives, especially for the growing number of youths living in refugee camps in Rwanda.
At just 19 years old, Safi is a single mother raising a two-year old child in Nyabiheke refugee camp, one of Rwanda’s oldest camps hosting over 14,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Because of her early pregnancy, Safi had to drop out of school when she was only 16 years old.
Although Safi had to discontinue school, she took on the responsibility of becoming a community volunteer for the Nike project “Girls take the lead”, a project that aims at empowering refugee girls with skills to speak out on issues affecting their lives in the camp and seeking solutions for the same through sports and peer discussions. Safi is also the captain and co-founder of Nyabiheke’s first female football team, a team which was set up in 2015 with the purpose of helping refugee girls to overcome childhood traumas, to promote social inclusion through play, as well as to break the stigma of girls and sports.
“We now have a complete football team composed of 11 girls. Although our families are now more accepting of us playing sports, we have irregular practice hours as we have to meet in between our household chores and livelihood activities,” Safi said. “In the past, our parents would have preferred to see us attending church rather than playing football.”
In a break with tradition, UNHCR in Gihembe and Nyabiheke Congolese refugee camps are offering more opportunities for girls to play sports instead of just boys. Throughout the camp, women are routinely found collecting water or at home taking care of the household chores. But through sporting activities, girls have the chance to make new friends, learn new skills and just be children without worrying about their current situation.
Like Safi, girl refugees are especially vulnerable to dropping out of school or being forced into early marriages. Safi says that through organized matches, UNHCR social workers help to recapture their childhood and learn the skills to overcome new challenges that they encounter as refugees. Play is a powerful tool for building resilient people and peaceful communities. It encourages inclusion and helps children develop essential skills needed for a brighter future.
Part of an ambitious agenda to reach and educate children, sports are playing an ever-greater role in the work of the UNHCR and its partner organizations to bring positive value to children’s lives, especially for the growing number of youths living in refugee camps in Rwanda. Unfortunately, due to limited resources and land in the country, the refugee camps in Rwanda have only one football pitch each for thousands of children. This means the football pitch is always busy, but luckily it doesn’t undermine the joy of the children.
“Now we have something to think about apart from the shocking memories of fleeing for our lives and our current stressful situation of being refugees,” says Safi.
Protogene Ndwaniye contributed reporting from Byumba, Rwanda