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Girls & Women

Sexual health and soccer: closing the gender gap in South Africa

Young girls in South Africa have big aspirations. They want to become actresses, politicians, soldiers, and musicians.

However, a lot of their dreams are not achieved because of HIV.

South Africa has one of the highest HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) rates in the world, with approximately 6.19 million South Africans living with HIV, a jump of 2.17 million since 2002.

About one third of the girls under 18 years of age have experienced some form of sexual violence. Moreover, a young girl is 8 times more likely to be infected with HIV than a boy.

Efforts to educate girls about sexual health and safe sex practices have not been too successful, because incorrect information spreads quickly. As one girl says, they believe that wearing a condom “is only preventing you from getting pregnant.”

Some believe that having sex with a virgin might lead to getting the virus.

Students don’t have the correct information, and that only makes them more vulnerable in a society where gender norms cause girls to have low self-esteem.

But more robust sexual education could help to reverse the tide of infection.

The Girls Achieve Power (GAP) Year program combines education with sports to ensure that girls in South Africa receive correct information about HIV AIDS, sexual health, and reproductive rights. Their aim is to empower the girls to be less vulnerable to gender-based violence and sexually transmitted diseases.

The sports based program includes having the girls dribble a ball around cones labelled with risky sexual practices. So, if the ball touches the cone labeled ‘unprotected sex’, they pretend as if the person actually engaged in the practice, and as a result, contracted HIV. As punishment, the student would have to jump a few hundred times.

This creates an association between the physically strenuous punishment and the unsafe sexual practice. In the process, the girls increase their knowledge about dangerous sexual habits. By being provided with a safe space within which they can feel positive about themselves, they learn to make decisions that are good for their sexual wellbeing, to respect their partners, and that it’s okay to say no.

The GAP Program also realises that including boys is important, because gender roles play a crucial part in deciding how members of society behave. The program thus also aims to instill an understanding of social constructs in both girls and boys.

For instance, boys are taught that it is not a woman’s job to do the household chores, and that they should participate equally in chores like cooking and cleaning.

By using soccer, the GAP program is creating a well informed generation which can, in turn, be role models for the next generation.

If programs like this have an impact, HIV will be less menacing by 2030.