Maldives: Football encourages young women to reach for their goals

27 Jun 2011

With their heads held high, 21 young women step out onto the football field. The Maldives Women’s National Football team is ready for kick-off.

Their mothers and grandmothers would have never dreamed of playing professional football. But a new initiative, launched in September, 2010, is helping to break gender stereotypes in the small island nation, located southwest of Sri Lanka in the Arabian Sea.

With support from the Government of Switzerland and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Football Association of Maldives has undertaken a project to increase women’s participation in sports and to encourage them to reach for their life goals.

Aminath Nasheeda, a member of the Maldives Women’s National Football team, says the project has already helped her to achieve her dreams.

“My greatest goals were to create a national football team and play in it: two goals accomplished with the help of supportive coaches,” she says.

The experience of Nasheeda and her teammates is captured in a documentary film entitled ‘Strides,’ which was produced in part by UNDP. The film demonstrates how football can be a powerful tool for change, and is currently being shown in local schools and on the country’s main television networks.

“The inspirational examples of each team member show that personal goals are important not only for the individual but also for building team spirit. This project aims to inspire young women to continue breaking the glass ceiling in all spheres of life,” says Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen, Advisor for Social Cohesion and Governance at UNDP Maldives.

The project also encourages women to see football as a viable job option.

“Our main challenge is to make women believe that football can also be a career opportunity, so we urge women to participate not only as players but also as coaches and referees, to name a few roles,” said Mauroof Ahmed, Technical Director of the Football Association of Maldives.

The women’s football project exemplifies much of UNDP’s work in Maldives, which is aimed at promoting gender equality and empowering women as a means of accelerating the country’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) achievement.

“This [project] is part of achieving higher goals in development. It can become part of the UN’s work, using football and sport, which is an equalizer – it brings everybody together," adds von Habsburg-Lothringen.

Yet, while Maldives has taken steps to address gender equality, much work is still needed to boost women’s participation in the workforce, as well as in administrative and political decision-making. Furthermore, women athletes in the country face societal opposition.

“Society couldn’t accept women playing football initially…Some people tell us outright that we can’t play,” explains Nasheeda.

At the ‘Strides’ launch ceremony in March, 2011, UNDP representative Andrew Cox noted these challenges, but emphasized the success that the women’s football project has achieved in the face of adversity.

“‘Strides’ shows just what determination, spirit and national pride can do in the lives of a committed team. It also shows the positive impact it is having across the nation, as the team, the Football Association of Maldives, and the public work to build a growing phenomenon in Maldives – that of women’s football,” he said.

Nasheeda also remains positive in the face of adversity, and is eager to build on her success.

“Being a girl doesn’t stop you from playing sports – all you need is determination. I may not win it, but I want to see girls winning a gold medal in both athletics and football,” she says.

In 2010, US$4.1 million was spent on UNDP-backed projects in Maldives. UNDP Maldives continues to encourage the use of sports as a tool for women’s empowerment in the country.