I will never forget the night in 2006 when I returned to my hometown of Dois Riachos (population 11,000) in the north-east of Brazil, after the first time I won the award for best female football player in the world. When I arrived there, it was nearly midnight and the whole town was out. I got into a fire truck and people were waving and cheering for me in the streets. I couldn’t believe that these were the same people who, only a few years earlier, called me names, excluded me from the boys championships and told my mother she should forbid me from playing a sport that was made for men. That night, I realized the power held by women and girls in sport to change the world

Until that moment, my only goal was to play football. I was not planning on becoming an activist or a role model, as I am today. I was unaware that my own experience in fighting and overcoming endless gender barriers on my way forward was shaking up and reshaping gender norms for those around me. As a child, I was a lonely warrior who ended up demonstrating that girls could play as well as, or even better, than boys. I showed my community that girls could also defy “common sense” about femininity and be strong, fast and stubborn. When I left my village at 14 years of age to play football professionally in Rio de Janeiro, I was sending the message that women and girls are courageous, independent, and can provide for themselves.

Although the pace of change sometimes seems frustratingly slow, societies have evolved in the way they see women and girls. These days, when I return to Brazil to visit my family, it is incredible to see how many girls are playing in the streets, participating in football clubs and dreaming about becoming professional players. Women and girls in sport have made important contributions to the shifts we see on and off the field. When we play, we challenge gender stereotypes and make people question the false idea that some activities are only for men. We exercise our right to occupy the public space, which is unfortunately too often still seen as men’s domain. And, because we build confidence and resilience through sport, we have greater opportunities to break the cycle of gender-based violence and to help other women and girls to do the same.

When female athletes get a chance to take the spotlight, the results are enormous. And for that, the 2019 Women’s World Cup was truly a game changer. Global viewership for the tournament exceeded 1 billion people. I am proud to say that the match Brazil played against France was watched by 35 million people, the largest audience for a women’s football match in history. It was beautiful to see so many women and girls in the audience, as well as men and boys enjoying the game. Female football players, coaches, referees and journalists challenged gender stereotypes in the media coverage, demonstrated respect for sexual diversity and, of course, fought for equal pay. These issues were raised in front of a massive audience and, as a result, gained momentum on the global agenda. Not only had they been transformed into action in the sports world, but also among a new generation who are demanding their rights.

I was deeply moved when I learned that girls from One Win Leads to Another (OWLA), a joint UN-Women–International Olympic Committee (IOC) sports programme for girls, were finding great acceptance and support among their families and communities to keep playing sports after the Women’s World Cup. Recently, I met some of the girls in Rio de Janeiro, and I humbly listened to them saying that my football colleagues and I have served as an inspiration to them. Kathely Rosa, a 19-year-old goalkeeper, told me that she sees a lot of similarities between my story and hers. When she looks at the battles I was able to win, it makes her believe she can win hers. Like me, many other female athletes have inspired women and girls to believe in themselves and widen the collective perception about what girls and women are capable of.

What I find fascinating is that this chain of inspiration keeps growing. Take Kathely, who wants to be a professional coach and to train a female football team in her community. She is currently studying physical education and is so determined to achieve her goal that I have no doubt that she will succeed. When she does, it will be her turn to inspire other girls by passing along the essential values of sport, like discipline, respect, fair play, teamwork, diversity and self-reliance, which are transferable to so many other areas of life.

Another example is Hingride, a rugby player who graduated from OWLA last year. She’s now a facilitator for a new group of girls playing rugby in her community, teaching much more than just how to score goals. She also teaches girls about gender issues, self-esteem and leadership, sexual and reproductive health and rights, gender-based violence and economic empowerment. These young rugby players will, in turn, share their knowledge with their families and friends, creating a virtuous cycle of positive transformation. As research demonstrates, when sports practice is combined with physical and emotional safe spaces, it creates a multiplier effect in various development areas, including health, education and the reduction of inequalities. Hingride is living proof.

We need more investment in access to sport for girls and an even playing field for professional women in sport. The dividends are so clear. If we want to speed up the pace of change to achieve Generation Equality, let’s get more girls on the field and let’s shine a light on the great achievements of women athletes. Because one win really does lead to another! It is clear that women and girls in sport have a big role to play in changing the global game. It’s time for gender equality.

5 April 2020

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