How Soccer Without Borders is helping young female footballers in troubled Nicaragua

By Callum Rice-CoatesBBC Sport
A man leads an anti-government protest in Nicaragua
Anti-government protestors take part in a rally called "Here nothing is normal" in Managua, Nicaragua's capital

Hasly was at university when the violence began. She felt scared and helpless. The campus at the Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria in Managua, Nicaragua's capital, was left in ruins - destroyed after protests against Daniel Ortega's authoritarian government escalated.

For Hasly, 18, the future is uncertain. Students have been at the centre of Ortega's crackdown: many led the protests - which began in April - against the government's social security cuts. Ortega responded with brutal repression, accusing protesters of attempting a coup.

That month, the Concacaf Women's Under-17 Championship in Nicaragua was cancelled because of safety concerns.external-link

More than 2,000 people have been arrested since. The threat of violence, for youngsters like Hasly, is very real.

"It is very difficult to live in our country right now," she says. "The streets and highways are not safe to travel on to the capital and my university. No-one can make sure that we are safe once we are there."

An anti-government protester holds up a sign which reads "when fear dies, freedom is born" at a rally in Managua, Nicaragua's capital
An anti-government protester holds up a sign which reads "when fear dies, freedom is born" at a rally in Managua, Nicaragua's capital

Hasly simply wants to continue her education. She is studying systems engineering and hopes to forge a successful career for herself in the field. But she has been unable to attend university for three months.

It is a consequence of a country in disarray. More than 300 people have been killed, Ortega is viewed by many as the enemy and Nicaragua, a Central American nation which borders Honduras and Costa Rica, has been plunged into an economic crisis.

But amid the relentless negativity, football offers some relief. It is through football that Hasly started on her road to university, via a programme which uses the sport to change perceptions and help young girls develop in Nicaragua.

'Football as a tool for positive change'

"I believe that soccer is a mirror of society, but also has the power to shape it," says Mary McVeigh Connor. She is the co-founder of Soccer Without Borders, a charity set up in 2006 with the aim of using the sport as a vehicle for positive change.

In Nicaragua, girls did not play football. And if they attempted to, it was frowned upon. Those perceptions are beginning to change, thanks in part to the work done by Soccer Without Borders. It has helped break down other pernicious social norms, too.

"Life as a girl in Nicaragua is extremely isolating," says Connor, who played football professionally before her involvement with Soccer Without Borders.

"Nearly 30% of girls are pregnant before the age of 18, and about half never advance from primary to secondary school. The culture of machismo dictates a certain set of norms for girls, many of which are internalised before they reach adolescence. Sport, and particularly soccer, has a unique ability to break down these barriers, build girls' leadership and confidence and create uncommon outcomes."

The programme, based in the city of Granada, works with girls and women from the ages of six to 20. There are 170 girls involved and a further 1,500 are reached through various camps, tournaments and special events. The staff consists of 10 Nicaraguan coaches and group leaders, four of whom are alumnae of the programme.

The girls involved find their prospects improved, their options increased. "In places where girls are given an equal opportunity to play and are encouraged and supported to play by their families, siblings, and communities, they are also able to better access opportunities in education and in the workforce," says Connor.

"I think soccer in particular has a unique power to shift gender norms because of its popularity and the passion that surrounds it. In places like Nicaragua where machismo is so prevalent, for a girl to play soccer in particular sends a message that, as one of our male coaches put it, 'girls can do everything just like we [boys] can'."

'Difficult times'

Hasly (centre) poses for a picture with some of her team-mates
Hasly, centre, and her team-mates live with the threat of violence in Nicaragua

Now, though, there are challenges. Granada was not at the epicentre of the protests, but the programme was still impacted by the turmoil. Changes have had to be made to Soccer Without Borders' schedule: some sessions have been cancelled because it is not considered safe for girls to walk home alone at night.

The decrease in tourism has also hit hard. "It affects so many families," says Connor. "Jobs and customers are lost. We normally host groups of American players who come to Nicaragua for a week of cultural immersion and exchange. These trips supply all of our equipment for the year and raise about 35% of our annual operating budget."

These have had to be cancelled. The charity must now find another way to raise funds. But they will press on, aware of the importance of their work. "I think in times of difficulty, uncertainty, and change, there is no greater comfort than that of family, and Soccer Without Borders is a family for our girls," says Connor. "Losing the consistency of our programme and its place in these girls' lives would be devastating."

For some of the girls, it is a time of uncertainty and tumult. Hasly does not know when she will be able to return to university. She is, she says, shocked by the deaths in her country. "The violence affects all Nicaraguans and especially young people. Many have left the country to seek safety. I am very sad."

Hasly joined Soccer Without Borders when she was eight and 10 years on still helps out, having herself been helped to gain a scholarship and attend university.

Another long-time participant, Francisca, recalls the early days of her involvement. "When I was eight, I received a lot of bad comments because men thought soccer was not for women," she says. "But now it is different. The population has accepted that not only men can play."

Francisca, like many others, has seen her life "completely change" through football. The past few months have been difficult - and a strain on everyone involved - but there is a sense of determination, of perseverance.

Francisca coaching in Nicaragua
Francisca (top left) is part of a new breed of female coaches in Nicaragua

'The days ahead'

The challenges are not yet over. Nicaragua is at a crossroads, and life for many has been put on hold. "A typical day in Granada before everything that has happened began full of energy," says Francisca. "All of the businesses opened without fear and everyone walked in the streets with safety and confidence, not thinking that something bad might happen."

That is no longer the case. There is a climate of fear, of suspicion and caution. And that has disrupted Soccer Without Borders.

"Our aim in the future is to grow the programme further in Granada, and bring the model to other departments across the country," says Connor.

"We hope that there is a peaceful way to end the violence that is affecting so many families, and that the Nicaragua that emerges on the other side of this difficult time reflects the creativity, determination, hopefulness and kindness that we have seen at first hand over the past 10 years."