Feature Story

07 September 2010

More than a Game: Using Football to Gain Traction on Health Issues in Uganda

ACHOLI SUB-REGION, Northern Uganda — Although hostilities in this area ceased in 2006, the lives of young people, formerly targets for abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army, have not been easy. During the conflict, which lasted more than twenty years, the more fortunate children spent their early years confined to congested camps for displaced persons, while others were subjected to trauma, brutality and suffering as child soldiers.

Prolonged instability took a toll on health and social support systems: reproductive health indicators in the sub-region are among the worst in the country, and gender-based violence is all too common. While the majority of youth – who comprise 56 per cent of Uganda’s population – live in poverty with few educational or employment opportunities, football is one thing that they can get excited about and that allows them to forget about their troubles. As Florence, age 23, from a squad in Gulu District said, “If we come to play football we forget our problems at home. It is like stress management.”

Serious play

Young women players help change gender steretypes.
Photo: Stijn Aelbers/UNFPA Uganda

But the Acholi Football Tournament, which took place in five districts, and was supported by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund,  did more than help young people relax. It also aimed to reduce teenage pregnancy and gender-based violence, two of the most serious problems in the area. Referees, coaches, and team captains attended training sessions on the issues, and then became a resource for information, discussion, and guidance. Subsequent dialogue sessions reached some 1,200 players.

The social messages were reinforced throughout the matches, reaching the audiences, of from 500 to a couple of thousand people, mostly youth, as well as the players. A goal blocked by the keeper was compared by announcers to a teen pregnancy averted. A yellow card served as a reminder to think about family planning options. At half-time the team, captains read petitions against teenage pregnancy and gender-based violence.


Top local officials awarded the winning teams with uniforms that read, “Say no to GBV and teenage pregnancy.” Health care workers were also on hand to answer questions and provide health counseling. Over the course of two days, some 10,000 condoms, most supplied by UNFPA, were distributed by health workers and peer counsellors as well as representatives of the Boda Boda Association, which employs many young men as motorcycle taxis drivers.

Over 800 individuals, mostly young men, took advantage of the free voluntary testing and counselling that was offered to allow them to check their HIV status.

Challenging gender stereotypes

Women played too, lending a demonstration of the fluidity of gender roles to the context. Although the women were less experienced than the men, and most played barefoot, the constant buzz around the women’s matches demonstrated that women’s football is a great way to make men—and all of us—think and talk about gender roles and how they are not fixed but can evolve. A player from the Lalogi team said she encountered negative attitudes. (See how these are addressed in a new electronic football game.) However, 21-year-old Rose said her husband was supportive: “He is happy that I play. I think he is here watching today,” she shouted over her shoulder as she ran onto the pitch for kick-off.

Although football fever is over for now, there is no doubt that the teams will return their villages armed with new information and confidence to make the smart choices and support their teammates and families.

— Mollie Fair