From Brittany Hume, Corporate Contributions, Johnson & Johnson
Among those who play it, soccer can lend lessons of the power of believing in yourself, working as a team, overcoming challenges, and persevering toward a goal.
As it happens, these lessons are also the most important to teach youth at risk of HIV/AIDS. Low expectations, low self-confidence, and lack of hope are among the most dangerous risk factors for HIV/AIDS, as they can lead to risky behaviors. For this reason, evidence has shown that HIV prevention education is most effective when coupled with behavioral programming—like soccer—that addresses the social and personal root causes of risk.
Since 2007, Johnson & Johnson has supported soccer-based HIV prevention programs for youth, working with partners Academy for Educational Development (AED) and Grassroot Soccer in northern Namibia to deliver Grassroot Soccer’s proven (and fun) “Skillz” curriculum to 8,000 youth per year.
This year, we decided to go one step further, drawing upon the world’s soccer zeal and the African backdrop to highlight the power of soccer as a tool in the fight against HIV/AIDS. We chose to focus on teenage girls, who are at three times greater risk for HIV/AIDS than boys, and with whom soccer’s messages of empowerment and leadership resonate well. The result, Girlz Got Skillz: A Summit on Health, Leadership, and Empowerment, convened 50 girls from Namibia, South Africa, and the United States at a sports school outside Cape Town, South Africa, for a week of education and fun.
As one of the planners for this event, I had a chance to stay with the girls at the sports school, accompany them during their activities, and watch their progress during the week. On the first day, the three groups of girls could not have seemed more different, each speaking their native languages—Xhosa, Oshiwambo, and English—in huddled groups, too timid to mingle. Immediately, soccer became the tool to engage and unify them: within moments of the coaches revealing a few soccer balls, the groups of girls had melded together, running toward the soccer pitch, dribbling the balls, and celebrating as one when someone scored.
The magic was seeing what could happen after soccer had opened the door, getting the girls’ attention and enabling them to earn each others’ trust. During the week, the girls participated in nine intensive Skillz curriculum sessions on HIV/AIDS and life skills, like Risk Fitness, which required them to be quick-witted as a team to weigh the varying degrees of risk of various situations, like relationships with older partners. These activities prompted ongoing, “offline” discussions about the social norms the girls faced in their communities, whether related to relationships, sex, or their long-term educational and career goals. In addition, the girls participated in a round table discussion with South African women who have risen above major challenges to become leaders in their communities; met young women living with HIV, who shared their stories and educated the girls about preventing mother-to-child transmission; and participated in a “Resiliency Race” in which the girls used a series of clues to explore the city of Cape Town and learn about women’s influential role in the city’s history.
The most moving stories of the week, however, were the ones the girls told themselves. On the eve of the summit’s culminating event, we gathered the girls in a final forum called the Skillz Café to reflect on the many lessons they heard during the week and relate them back to their own lives. Their trust in and support for one another by this point was understood; they were ready to share. That evening, I heard girls talk of physical and sexual abuse from family members, of the denial of education because of their gender, of having to become the leader of a broken family after a parent’s death from AIDS. All of these horrors emerged from girls as young as 14.
These were the stories they told. These are their “risk factors;” this is their reality. And all it took was a bit of soccer to break the ice, engage them in discussion, show them that there were other options, and give them hope. This video provides a good overview of the program’s impact. And, you can follow the participants on Facebook.