In times of extreme adversity, hope and light can come from unexpected places. In South Sudan — haunted by a war for independence, followed by a civil war and continued unrest in its short history — people can point to one major victory: a first-time women’s soccer league. Started just this year, it is the culmination of local women’s teams competing against one another since 2019.
The world’s youngest country, with a population of about 12 million people, South Sudan is not known for gender parity. Its women and girls go , and at least and girls say they have experienced one or more forms of sexual violence.
Soccer, which has long been , is now being used to combat some of the gender inequality that women persistently face in this central African nation. South Sudan’s men’s soccer team was established in 2012, making it the 209th official member of the global soccer (aka football) scene. Since then, the team has taken part in World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
“The soccer league for women and girls is directly linked to equal human rights in South Sudan. It’s not just a matter of equal participation in sports,” Kasumi Nishigaya, chief of the Gender Affairs Unit and senior gender adviser at the United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (Unmiss), told PassBlue.
“Ask any of the spectators at one of these matches as they watch with amazement how the girls are running up and down the field, passing to each other, shouting to coordinate and cheering each other onward as they shoot decisive goals,” Nishigaya said. “It’s a small but perhaps difficult-to-make step from that pride to families fully empowering their daughters in every other area of life.”
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, after nearly 99 percent of voters favored it in a referendum. In December 2013, civil war broke out after President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy, Riek Machar, and 10 others of attempting a coup. A peace agreement was signed in Ethiopia in 2015 under threat of UN sanctions on both sides, yet violence continued after Machar was appointed first vice president and fled the country in 2016. Last year, Kiir and Machar agreed to another and formed a coalition government.
By most accounts, however, the country remains seriously unstable, with the country’s leaders having “squandered the world’s goodwill, the country’s oil revenues, and countless opportunities to lift up their population of 12 million people,” Samantha Power, the administrator of Usaid said in a statement on July 9, marking South Sudan’s 10-year anniversary as a nation. Yet a future South Sudan, she added, can be defined “not by the tragedies of its first decade, but by its resilience and renewal in the decades ahead.”
Life remains rough — from government media censorship to child soldier recruitments and “human rights abuses off the Richter scale,” according to the . Intercommunal violence rages, causing 80 percent of civilian casualties thus far this year, according to a by the head of Unmiss, Nicholas Haysom.
The current peace agreement has gender provisions, including a quota for women’s representation of at least 35 percent in all areas. But not all who signed on are completely committed, and women continue to experience disproportionate violence and unequal pay.
The first women’s soccer team competed against this backdrop for the first time two years ago, earning a 5-0 win over Zanzibar in regional matchups, along with a 9-0 loss to Tanzania and a 3-0 loss to Burundi.
Sensing potential, the South Sudan Football Association (SSFA) launched Stars Unite, a first-time, four-year plan to promote the women’s team. Pledging to build a “transparent, inclusive and sustainable future for women’s soccer in South Sudan,” it envisions an international federation-funded soccer league consisting of eight teams from each region with players 18 to 27 years old.
The strategy also includes four “pillars” to be achieved by 2024: increasing the number of women involved in soccer by training female coaches, administrators and referees; increasing the number of women playing soccer in communities by 70 percent through regional grass-roots tournaments; committing to competitions at the international level for the national team; and developing a women’s soccer brand.
All this will “create a platform for us to showcase our talents here at home and also in other parts of the world,” Amy Lasu Luate, the women’s national team captain and the first woman to be appointed a player ambassador by the SSFA, said in a .
Lasu, 26, was born in Central Equatoria, in South Sudan, but spent her childhood in Nairobi, where she fell in love with soccer at age seven. She grew up playing soccer before coming to South Sudan for her first national team call-up. Her father was a well-known player in Juba for the Malakia Football Club. She is poised to become a well-known player there too.
“Football never used to be considered a women’s game back in the day,” Lasu, the captain of the Juba Super Stars, told PassBlue in written correspondence from South Sudan. “It was considered taboo to see a woman playing football. Some communities here believe that a woman is only supposed to be doing house chores and taking care of the family while the men are free to do whatever they want. I feel like it has made a huge impact . . . [and] most people have now changed their opinions about women’s football although there are still some who are not yet convinced that a lady should play.”
Soccer also paves the way for women like Lasu to make their mark as leaders in their communities. A women’s coaching course held by SSFA in January brought together 16 local football federations countrywide and helped trainees learn basic soccer skills. More than 90 women received a coaching certificate at the end of the five-day event.
“Being the captain has given me the role of ambassador of women’s football in South Sudan,” Lasu said. “Also, I was recently invited by CAF [Confederation of African Football] to conduct the drawing of lots of CAF women’s competitions. I believe being a captain has given me opportunities and I know many more will come.”
Victor Lual, secretary-general of the South Sudan Football Association, told PassBlue: “The introduction of the South Sudan Women’s National League created a community of supporters and a huge fun base from both women and men, and it brought people together who are united and supporting the same cause.
“A lot of women’s names became household names to their fans because they were performing exceptionally well and impressing the fans. This boosted their confidence, and you can see from the end of the league that the women are extremely talented and all they had been waiting for was the opportunity to perform.”
Despite advances made by the women’s soccer team in promoting gender equality in sports and generally, there are still setbacks exclusive to the women’s team. Lasu described an incident a few months ago: “Our team Juba Super Stars was playing against Aweil Women FC,” she said, referring to another South Sudan team. “At some point during the game, the minister of Humanitarian Affairs, who is the husband of the captain of the Aweil team, came and demanded that his wife come out of the pitch. Apparently, she had left their three-month-old baby at home to come and play the game, according to the husband.
“The fans there were not happy about the fact that he wanted to take the girl away because she is considered the best player in that team and her not being around would mean the team would struggle. One of [his] bodyguards fired a gun in the air, so you can imagine how terrifying that was for the girls and everyone who was around.”
On May 31, the South Sudan Women’s National League 2021 ended with the Yei Joint Stars being crowned champions of the new South Sudan Women’s Football League. The SSFA told PassBlue that the Yei Joint Stars will represent the country at this year’s Cecafa Women’s Football Championship. The date of the tournament and other countries competing are to be announced.
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Ivana Ramirez is from South Carolina. She will begin matriculating as an undergraduate student at Yale University in 2021. She writes PassBlue’s This Week @UN news summary and is the researcher for PassBlue’s UN-Scripted podcast series.