By Raisa Simplicio in North East Brazil
“Women's football depends on you to survive," an emotional Marta cried down the camera lens moments after her Brazil side had been eliminated from the Women’s World Cup. “Think about it, value it more. We're asking for support.”
Her message rang out around the world. More eyes were on women’s football than ever before this past June as France 2019 brought record-breaking television audiences of around one billion viewers. The hope is that it was heard back home after, for the first time, every one of A Selecao Feminina’s games were broadcast live in Brazil.
A golden age is coming to an end for women’s football in the game’s spiritual home, with trailblazers such as Formiga, Cristiane and six-time World Player of the Year Marta ready to pass the mantle. "Women's football depends on you to survive," Marta continued after their extra-time defeat to the hosts in the Round of 16. “It's about wanting more, it's about training more, it's about taking care of yourself, it's about being ready to play 90 minutes and then 30 minutes more. So, that's why I am asking the girls. There's not going to be a Formiga forever, there's not going to be a Marta forever, there's not going to be a Cristiane."
“Women's football depends on you to survive"
Marta was calling on a new generation to stand up, but she is only too aware of the countless hurdles Brazil throws in the way of each new wave of young hopefuls.
“In the streets where I grew up, I was the only girl who played with the boys. I tried to play the girls and join their games, but they wouldn’t let me,” recalled legendary Brazil striker Cristiane of the difficulties she encountered along the way. “I’m not sure if it’s because I was a girl who played football or because I always had bruised toes, bare feet, which wasn’t ‘nice'."
Cultural prejudice remains one of the biggest issues facing girls growing up in Brazil. And those issues are even greater in the country’s rural communities, which remain less progressive than the big cities. But Plan International is committed to changing all that through a number of community projects aiming to educate children on their basic human rights and promote equality for all.
And football has proved a valuable commodity in teaching young girls of the power that women can have in a society that allows them to participate to the same degree as their male counterparts. That’s why global sports media companies DAZN and Stats Perform have partnered up with the charity to help change the world through the power of sports.
Plan International is a global children’s charity that advances children’s rights and equality for girls. DAZN and Stats Perform are supporting their Champions of Change initiative in North East Brazil, which harnesses the power of football to promote gender equality and improve relationships between girls and boys
In June last year, Plan International organised the very first football tournament between the communities here. More than 300 youngsters took part in the Champions of Change project, coming together with a single goal: to win not only on the pitch, but in life.
“Plan International is helping us believe in ourselves and realise our potential,” says Yara, an 18-year-old member of the project and part of the women’s football team that won the tournament in 2019. “Before the project, some girls had no interest in football, and now they are eager to learn the sport.”
The teenager was told by a neighbour about the Champions of Change project and instantly felt its impact, unearthing leadership skills she never knew she had. She is now encouraging other young girls to take part as well, becoming an active voice in the fight to improve conditions within her community.
Earlier this year, Yara documented the difficulties that girls from her region have to face due to the intermittent supply of electricity, which has complicated travel in the region by plunging routes into darkness and limiting public transportation services, turning once safe, public routes into dark and potentially dangerous zones.
She shared her findings during an audience at the Public Defender’s Office, where a report was presented in an attempt to convince local government to combat the issue.
Her state has one of the highest rates of violence against women in Brazil, however, around 65 per cent of victims don’t report the abuse they have suffered, often out of fear of repercussions and the social stigma they could face, while sometimes simply due to the quite alarming fact that they are unaware that what they have endured constitutes abuse.
Plan International’s events, workshops and educational programs are a welcome distraction from daily life and leave a legacy that can help young people change their lives. And the project isn’t only for teenagers, but also their parents, who play a vital role in the process; they volunteer to help out during workshops and training sessions. Silvana is one of many who has seen her life transformed by the arrival of the project in her community.
A mother of four, general services assistant, coach and, above all, an active voice fighting for improved access to sports in her region, Silvana plays a fundamental role within the project, training both boys and girls, and has a strong influence in her community.
Football has been a constant Silvana’s life, having discovered at an early age that her talent laid between the posts. A goalkeeper who fell in love with the game due to its ability to improve physical health, promote teamwork and offer personal growth, she had no hesitation in joining the battle to transform the lives of those around her, not least her daughter Victoria.
“There was this man across the street who started a women’s team," she says. "I joined in just for fun but ended up staying around so, when he gave it up, I took charge. Victoria joined when she was 11, 12-years-old, and instantly became more engaged, which made me enjoy it even more.”
Silvana’s eyes are filled with pride when she discusses her daughter, who not only remains in the team but helps encourage other girls to join the project, and is a dedicated student. Victoria is one of the few in her region who made it to university, where she now studies nutrition and hopes that her education will allow her to contribute even more to the ongoing development of local communities in North East Brazil.
“There wasn’t even a school bus for us in these rural areas,” Victoria reveals. “I often couldn’t afford a ticket to get around. But when we got buses, things got easier. I took a test and qualified for a scholarship to a private institution, but there were issues with my mother’s documentation and I couldn’t enrol for the course. But then I took another exam and was accepted onto a course on nutrition. I see myself going on to be able to help other people to grow, just as I did with the help from this project.”
"My mother always gave me an incentive.
Mother and daughter are now reaping the rewards but, according to Silvana, support from the men in her home is fundamental. They help with domestic chores, easing the workload and leaving the duo with more time to dedicate to their goals.
“My boys help me a lot at home. Whenever they’re there and I’m out working, everything is taken care of when I get home - there’s food on the table, all done!”
It may sound routine to many, but in communities such as theirs, to see male members of the family contribute domestically is rare. All too often, only the men go out to school and work while the women are expected to stay home and run the household.
It’s a story all too familiar to a number of Brazil greats, including Formiga, who has appeared in a world-record seven World Cups and is the only player to appear in every single edition of the women’s football tournament at the Olympic Games.
“My brothers didn’t like to see me play football with other boys,” she said. “There was a lot of jealousy, and the fact that I was much better than them. Their friends would joke about it. Sometimes they’d say football wasn’t for women, who should stay at home washing dishes.”
Thankfully for football, Formiga’s mother felt differently, providing her daughter the strength needed to follow her dreams. Today, Formiga stands as a source of inspiration not only to other young girls from rural North East Brazil, but to girls all around the world.
“My mother always gave me an incentive. ‘Do it’, she’d say. She didn’t stay at home, she’d go out to work.”
And that’s exactly what Plan International’s project has been aiming to achieve. With the parents playing an active role in the project, teenagers are encouraged not to give up on their dreams, but to learn how to build a better world for all. On the day of the tournament, over 300 young girls took the field to showcase their potential.
After opening the day with a capoeira display, girls of all ages packed the field. Local boys cheered them on and vice versa, in a show of solidarity that wasn’t restricted by gender.
Not even the intense heat managed to quell their enthusiasm. The prize ceremony took place just before the sun went down, of course - there are no working lights to switch on after dark.
“We have to cry in the beginning in order to smile by the end,” said an emotional Marta that evening in Le Havre.
Those she was speaking to were there in North East Brazil. The Queen of Football’s address reverberated across the world, but perhaps nowhere like it did here.
Plan International UK is a global children’s charity. We work to give every child the same chance in life.