When England faced Honduras in their final friendly match before the start of this summer’s World Cup in Brazil. With English expectations hovering at uncharacteristically realistic levels, Roy Hodgson will have appreciated an injury-free, competitive encounter.
For the Central American nation, competing in only their third finals, the match represented a good opportunity to prepare for three group games against France, Ecuador and Switzerland. They were eager to better their record from South Africa 2010 when they picked up just a solitary point. However, three successive defeats saw them return home empty handed.
Yet while the men’s national team was dominating the country’s sporting coverage, in isolated rural communities in the south of the nation football projects are also being used to improve conditions for an altogether different part of Honduran society, one that is traditionally unrepresented and overlooked.
A mix of geographic isolation and deep-seated traditions mean that various communities in this part of Honduras remain unexposed to much of what happens in the outside world, and the traditional patriarchal society sees the man as head of the household. Due to a lack of independence and opportunities to socialise, women here are often timid, reserved and reluctant to share their thoughts and opinions. This is where football, that most popular of male sports, has played an unlikely role in promoting gender equality.
At 1,700 metres above sea level, not too far from the border with El Salvador, sits La Esperanza. This Honduran city, with a population of around 20,000, enjoys a cool climate and beautiful mountain scenery.
Situated between thirty minutes and an hour away, in differing directions along unpaved dirt roads, are the small communities of Belén, Manazapa and Los Encinos. Home to indigenous Lenca people, the residents of these communities live without electricity, running water or any access to healthcare or emergency services. They rely on the land for their income, and use whatever scant resources they have – chickens, maize, and rice – for food.
Not too long ago, girls’ football teams were established in these three communities thanks to a partnership between the local youth organisation Jóvenes Liderando Cambios (‘Youth Leading Changes’) and Progressio, a British international development charity which sends young volunteers to Honduras as part of the International Citizen Service programme. With the aim of promoting gender equality in a manner that appealed to both men and women, the initiative has been a great success.
While women’s football has enjoyed considerable growth in many countries over the last few years, in these rural areas of Honduras it’s considered a new and somewhat novel concept. Sport without male involvement is still a rather alien idea for many. This hasn’t, however, stymied the enthusiasm and enjoyment experienced by the women and girls who have taken part so far.
According to Kenia Meza, a Honduran volunteer who has helped to run the training sessions, football represents a “fun way to develop bonds of friendship with other people in the community.”
“My personal belief with sport, and it proves it working with these girls, is that anyone can succeed and anyone can enjoy it if it’s delivered in the right way,”explains Charlotte Hounsome, a Sports Science graduate from Loughborough University who spent time coaching the Los Encinos girls’ team as part of her volunteer placement with Progressio last year.
Providing a platform for socialising and exercising, away from the men and the monotonous routine of the household, has been a key aspect of the initiative, and there has been a marked increase in the confidence and self-esteem levels of participants who, in the very first training session, came across as shy and nervous.
Alongside the training sessions, Progressio and JLC volunteers run gender equality workshops which aim to inform both sexes about women’s rights and their expected roles within the communities.
Honduras is currently ranked at 120th in the Gender Inequality Index and high cases of domestic violence, which result in one woman being killed every eighteen hours, remain a real issue plaguing the country’s progress. Young women migrating to big cities in search of work are those most at risk.
Even in other safer parts of the country, the disparity in equality means that many women lead very restricted lives. With less access to employment and education, a large percentage of women here have no choice but to fulfill the role of mother and housewife.
Changing long-held beliefs and attitudes is always something which happens gradually, but any type of progress must be celebrated.
“It is a very, very, slow process, as a lot of society is based on deep-rooted traditions, and the isolation means that they are not exposed to international media or to the occupations available to women in cities,” states Olivia Grimshaw, who volunteered for Progressio earlier this year. She’s adamant, though, that football can be used as a tool to help empower Honduran women.
“It can have a massive effect in terms of how they are viewed and treated. It gives women confidence.”
The ultimate goal of the initiative is to be able to train female members of the communities to coach each team. This way, the project will be self-sustainable and will continue to give women an opportunity to develop their skills in an environment where they feel comfortable expressing themselves.
And while there may be a few obstacles to overcome along the way, Kenia remains confident that the project will succeed. “However difficult the task, it can be done. Whatever seems impossible, we can try. And no matter how difficult our problems seem, we can always find a solution.”
Reaction to the programme has been extremely positive thus far. Several tournaments have been organised since its inception and the level of support continues to increase, from both men and women.
“The women’s football initiative was founded to break down gender inequality within the communities, and the true success of this was apparent today as vast numbers came to support the women,” wrote Charlotte, shortly after her Los Encinos team had been crowned winners of the inaugural competition. The latest tournament, organised by Olivia and her fellow female volunteers, featured seven teams and attracted over 100 spectators.
“When it comes down to sport, in a way it makes us realise how similar everyone is around the world, because the way the girls react to it and the way they enjoy it is just the same as I think anyone would,” says Charlotte.
When the World Cup officially kicks off on Thursday, the eyes of the world will be on Brazil, and Hondurans across this football-mad nation will crowd round their TV screens to cheer on La Selección. There may be moments of joy, disappointment, anger, suspense, and (possibly) elation. There will be shouting, cheering and tears, both happy and sad.
Yet while everyone else is inside watching the football, in this remote part of Honduras – where the houses do not have TVs – these women and girls will be the ones outside, playing the beautiful game.
By Matthew Kyle
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona