Feature story

More than a game: using football to promote health issues in Uganda

30 September 2010

A version of this story first appeared at www.unfpa.org 

The UNFPA-sponsored football tournament offered a way to get the attention of young people in northern Uganda. Photo: Stijn Aelbers/UNFPA Uganda

Although hostilities in northern Uganda ceased in 2006, the lives of young people, formerly targets for abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army, have not been easy. During the conflict, which lasted more than 20 years, many children spent their early years confined to camps for displaced persons, while others were subjected to trauma, brutality and suffering as child soldiers.

Prolonged instability also took a toll on health and social support systems: reproductive health indicators in the sub-region are among the lowest in the country, and gender-based violence is common.

While the majority of youth—who comprise 56 % of Uganda’s population—live in poverty with few educational or employment opportunities, football is one thing that they can get excited about and that allows them to forget about their troubles. Florence, age 23, from a squad in Gulu District said, “If we come to play football we forget our problems at home. It is like stress management.”

At the Acholi Football Tournament, which took place in five districts, and was supported by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, the goal was to do more than more than help young people relax. It also aimed to reduce teenage pregnancy and gender-based violence, two of the most serious problems in the area.

Referees, coaches, and team captains attended training sessions on the issues, and then became a resource for information, discussion, and guidance. Subsequent dialogue sessions reached some 1,200 players.

Top local officials awarded the winning teams with uniforms that read, “Say no to GBV (gender-based violence) and teenage pregnancy.” Health care workers were also on hand to answer questions and provide health counseling. Over the course of two days, some 10,000 condoms, most supplied by UNFPA, were distributed by health workers and peer counsellors as well as representatives of the Boda Boda Association, which employs many young men as motorcycle taxis drivers.

More than 800 individuals, mostly young men, took advantage of the free voluntary testing and counselling that was offered to allow them to check their HIV status.

Women were also on the pitch, although many are less experienced than their male counterparts, spectators say the buzz of the women’s matches created were a demonstration of the growing popularity and re-thinking of gender roles

A player from the Lalogi team said she has encountered negative attitudes. (See how these are addressed in a new electronic football game.) However, 21-year-old Rose said her husband was supportive: “He is happy that I play. I think he is here watching today,” she shouted over her shoulder as she ran onto the pitch for kick-off.