Khel Now brings you the story of the German NGO that is using football to score goals in the sphere of women’s rights and empowerment.

The German Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Discover Football has been using the beautiful game as a vehicle to create awareness about issues in the sphere of women’s rights and empowerment. With a decade’s worth of work behind them the Germans have been spreading their gospel in different parts of the world and their contributions have been widely recognized by the United Nations, the German government as well as other international organizations. There is a new momentum in Indian football and the country recently organized the inaugural edition of the Indian Women’s League. It was little surprise than when the Discover Football caravan rolled into India in August for a first-of-its-kind women’s festival in the football-mad state of Goa. Khel Now too paid a visit to the event and our very own Ravish Narvekar caught up with the organization’s two Project Managers Lea Goelnitz and Esther Franke to find out more about their work and experience in India.

Goelnitz started off by explaining how the idea for the NGO came about. “Ten years ago, a women’s team from Berlin travelled to Iran to play a football match against their women’s team. As at that time, they hadn’t played a game in the last 8 years. It was an encouraging experience,” she said unequivocally. “It was inspiring and motivating to get into this. There is also a documentary on the trip called ‘Football Undercover,” Goelnitz added.

She continued,“After the Iran trip, the plan was that the Iranian women’s team will travel to Berlin to play a match but they were not allowed to travel at the last moment. We had to cancel all our programs. At that exact moment, an idea struck us that if more teams were invited to participate, than any team’s cancellation at the last moment won’t cancel the whole tournament. Like this, we came into being. This is how the football festival started.”

Through their activities, participatants not only gain a certain psychological strength but they also help empower them through skills training. Goelnitz took the opportunity to elaborate on the nature of their programs. “We always hear of the struggles a woman has to face to play football. Sometimes the community does not allow them to or sometimes they have to face gender-based discrimination. So, it’s common everywhere,” she explained. “The roots of this discrimination are common. So, we believe in exchanging thoughts. We can learn from each other how to deal with it,” she affirmed.

Partaking in the conversation, Franke, also shared some valuable inputs on her distinctive work and approach. “We also work with role models like coaches to empower them so that they can work in their communities and also with journalists because, in all countries, journalism is a real problem as it is mostly focused on the men. We work with female journalists to empower them, to make them interested in women’s football and it also helps them to pitch their stories about women in sports.” 

In addition to third world countries, women’s football has only been limited to a certain section of the population even in developed countries. Sharing her experience on the geographical differences and difficulty in promoting women’s football throughout the world, Goelnitz discussed the common problems and the inequality that comes with it. “It is quite difficult to say because even in Germany, where we are based, there are various obstacles as clubs distribute resources unfairly and times are uneven for practice pitches. So, I wouldn’t say that there is a hierarchy or that one country is worst or that others are better. I think it always comes in the context of  gender inequality in general,” she opined. 

The Trailer of ‘Football Undercover – The Documentary’

Agreeing with her compatriot and colleague, Franke explained how the scenario is unpredictable in different regions throughout the world. “It always depends on a specific community. You can have one community in a certain country that is very progressive, very supportive and very friendly where it is very easy for a woman to play football and than you go to another progressive country, but there, if there are no structures and facilities in the community or in their region, it becomes harder for a woman to play,” she elaborated. “So, it is really hard to say because we have everything from everywhere.”

“Claiming a pitch is very symbolic. When we arrived here in Goa, the pitch was full of men and we were the only women. But now, in the last few days, we have women all over the pitch. This is very symbolic,” she said describing how Goa had been kind in making the festival a success.

The young German was enthusiastic when talking about overcoming the barriers and stereotypes that she encounters on a regular basis.  “It starts with the notion that women are generally not supposed to play football because in football, you get injured a lot and their families are concerned. Then there are men who always claim that the game belongs to them and there is always a space issue as they don’t give football pitches easily,” she explained.

“All the stereotypes about women are supposed to what society wants to dictate. Being in other countries, also the main problem is clothing. They think that wearing sports clothing is pushing the boundaries.”

Next, Goelnitz was asked if there is an appreciation of women’s issues at the institutional level and from governments, especially in developing countries to which she said, “I think yes, to a certain level, there is some appreciation but the reason why we continue the work is it’s still not enough and there is no country in the world where gender equality has been achieved. Even in Germany, there are issues like domestic violence, gender pay gap, discrimination at the workplace and so on. It is similar to India. So, I think not only the Indian government but governments of all countries have a lot of work to do.”

Talking about her experience in India, especially in Goa. Goelnitz was effusive in her praise. “It has been a great experience,” she said. “Mapusa is a great city and the stadium has a nice atmosphere around it. Everyone here invested their time to see our girls play. It was fantastic. The community around was fantastic,” she complimented.

Discover football in action

The Discover Football official was asked why they chose Goa to organize the festival. “Firstly, it is because of the Tibetan women’s football team. The first time we had a festival abroad was in Lebanon three years ago and now we are in India because three years ago, the Tibetan women’s football team came to Berlin and they told us the difficulties they have to face here to play football. They told us that a tournament like this will be a great idea to meet people here and exchange thoughts. Last year, the same team participated in a women’s tournament in Goa at the same stadium and we were here at that time to watch them play. So. we liked it and decided to host our festival here.”

Talking about the participation in the tournament in Goa, Goelnitz made it clear that it was nothing but positive for her and her organization. “The participation is really good. We have had a good experience in terms of this. I must say it was satisfactory,” she said. “I am not only talking about our players and coaches, but I have seen equal efforts from everyone who was involved in the festival,” she elaborated.

The Indian women have enjoyed a considerably higher FIFA ranking than their male counterparts. While the men’s game is on the up, that still continues to be so. However, the women’s game in the country has never received the kind of stature and attention it commands. Addressing the issue, Goelnitz spoke on how she feels about the lack of infrastructure in Indian women’s football. “Here, they have state teams but they don’t have a state women’s league. How can there be a state team when below it, there is nothing? There are no grassroots for women’s football and that is sad to see.”

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The last few years have been a phase of rapid growth in Indian football, particularly the men’s game, but also for the women. When asked about how the world is looking at Indian football and the recent developments in it, Goelnitz told of how it’s a similar situation in both her native Germany and in India.

“Actually, the world knows that the FIFA U-17 World Cup is happening in India. But, that’s exactly, why we do an event like this in India because no one knows about women’s football in the country. People don’t even care in my country. There is some small media coverage, similar to here in India. Forget about the world, I think most people in India don’t know about thie Indian Women’s League.”

Finally, the German was asked what has been the biggest concern for her organization in promoting women’s football in recent years and the challenges they envisage in the future. “In general we always struggle with funding because women’s football is not that recognized,” she said. “The FIFA World Cup will be hosted by Russia and Qatar in the coming years, countries with poor records in human rights. So, linking sports with human rights there will be our next target,” she concluded.