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Young Aweil Women defy Cultural Norms by taking to Football for Empowerment and Social Cohesion (By Achirin Achirin/Filip Andersson)

“If you made a mistake like I did by getting married at an early age, please don’t give up. Please, go back to school or come back to your football team and you will succeed one day,” says 21-year-old Arek Noon, a mother of one, while using the halftime interval to breastfeed her little one.

Arek’s female team, Tiger, is playing a match at the Aweil Freedom Square against the best team in the area. Two games have been organized by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan to commemorate International Women’s Day, attracting an enthusiastic crowd of more than a thousand people.

The event, however, is not just about sporting fun, important as that may be in itself. It is also arranged to spread awareness about and end the harmful cultural practices of both forced and early marriages and domestic violence. “Men: raise your family, not your fist”, as part of the slogan on some football jerseys reads.

While admitting that playing football when having a baby requiring breastfeeding, Arek hails the positive impacts of engaging in the beautiful game.

“I feel stronger even than many of the men. It is good exercise for your body. Football also develops relations between players, leading to harmony and fair play among participants regardless of what ethnic group they belong to,” she says.

In the Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal region, the benefits experienced by footballing females are even bigger than that. Defying cultural norms that dictate that women should preferably stay indoors and definitely away from playing football, the sport is rapidly gaining momentum and has become a passion offering women a sense of both liberation and empowerment.

“Boys and girls should be treated equally and allowed to practice and play football,” Arek states, and that is a stance clearly shared by many girls and women in the area.

The Tiger team is composed of players from Nyamlel, Gok Machar and Wanyjok, and Zahra Ali Dudeen is one of the girls who was swept away by her love of football at a very early age.

“I started practicing football in my area when I was six years old,” the 11-year-old resident of Nyamlel and a no-nonsense centre half says. “This is the first time I have played in such a big match in Aweil outside my hometown. I feel very lucky.”

Despite Tiger losing one game after a penalty shoot-out, with Zahra being unfortunate enough not to convert her spotkick, she’s missing to score, she feels optimistic about her footballing future.

“I want to build my future career on football,” she reveals.

A supporting role model she already has: former footballer and current coach of the Tiger team, 30-year-old Martha Abuk Malek, who shares her advice to budding players.

“I want to encourage other girls that when you want to play football, tell your parents exactly what you want to do, and let them know where you are going. Convince them that your particular talent is playing football.”

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).