More Than a Game: Soccer-Based Health Programming for Adolescent Boys and Young Men

  • 30 Nov 2018 | by Alison Clowes, Chris Barkley, Mbulelo Malotana and Jenn Warren | Grassroot South Africa

More Than a Game: Soccer-Based Health Programming for Adolescent Boys and Young Men – Blog

Grassroot Soccer SKILLZ Boy Coaches lead gender-based violence prevention activities with Grade 6-7 boys from Eluxolweni Primary School in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. © Slingshot Media/GRS 2018

Grassroot Soccer SKILLZ Boy Coaches lead gender-based violence prevention activities with Grade 6-7 boys from Eluxolweni Primary School in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. © Slingshot Media/GRS 2018

Playing football, shooting pool, and drinking at the tavern – this is how many young men in South Africa spend their free time. Despite facing many health challenges, young men tend to not go to clinics, contemplate their long-term health, or consider the harmful gender norms that sometimes leave them sick, unhappy and struggling to form healthy connections with the people who matter most to them.

Adolescent boys and young men need effective interventions to improve their health, transform gender norms, end sexual and gender-based violence, and prevent HIV, but they are difficult to reach.

Harmful gender norms drive poor health-seeking behaviours and outcomes for adolescent boys and young men, violence against women and girls, and men’s power over women in relationships. Adolescents with inequitable gender beliefs are more likely to have early sex, unsafe sex, STIs, and their relationships are more likely to involve intimate partner violence. Men who adhere to dominant masculine norms have worse mental health and general wellbeing and are more likely to avoid health care clinics.

“Engaging adolescent boys and young men is essential to challenging harmful norms and empowering women, girls, and communities.”

Added to this, entrenched gender norms in South Africa inhibit effective implementation of laws intended to address violence against women and girls. At the community level, a lack of information, definition and awareness exacerbates women's risk of exposure to violence.

These norms create an environment in which gender-based violence is acceptable, and even worse, normalised. It is therefore ever more important to engage adolescent boys and young men in the promotion of gender-equitable attitudes and norms, and influence their behaviours positively. More equitable relationships and nonviolent conflict resolution practices benefit both males and females, and contribute to preventing and reducing gender-based violence.

Through awareness, mentoring and participation in sport, GRS programmes for both girls and boys address gender expectations and power imbalances, and seek to reduce gender-based violence.

Adolescent boys and young men have diverse needs, interests, beliefs and unique barriers to accessing health services.

Effective programming engages with the complex influences shaping their attitudes, decisions and behaviours; resonates with their lifestyles, identities and life stages; reaches them in spaces they already use; creates positive associations with health services; and sees men and boys as potential agents for positive change rather than viewing them as “the problem.”

Engaging adolescent boys and young men is essential to challenging harmful norms and empowering women, girls, and communities.

Transforming Gender Norms Amongst Adolescent Boys

Grassroot Soccer (GRS) harnesses the power of the world’s most popular sport to engage young men through a medium they know and love. Over 900,000 adolescent boys and young men have graduated from GRS programmes around the world, showing improved knowledge of key protective behaviours for HIV; knowledge of, demand for, and uptake of local sexual and reproductive health services; and increased equitable gender beliefs.

The organisation’s trained male mentors (“Coaches”) deliver programmes for adolescent boys to transform harmful gender norms before adulthood, and this Coach-participant connectedness is central to the work of challenging patriarchal views and practices.

Grassroot Soccer’s programmes challenge the toxic masculinity promoted in football spaces and culture, redefining the football pitch as a place where football, gender equality, and health are mutually reinforcing.

SKILLZ Boy focuses on masculinity, sexual and reproductive health and rights, violence prevention and substance abuse, and helps young boys have important discussions about what it means to be a man, take steps to achieve their goals, stay strong when faced with challenges, and support each other to be positive role models in their community.

Evaluations have demonstrated improvements in participants’ gender-equitable beliefs, willingness to access testing services, and self-efficacy, and highlight the potential of Grassroot Soccer’s single-sex interventions for adolescent boys to shift harmful gender norms.

Finally, Grassroot Soccer and the South African Football Association (SAFA) have designed a five-day coaching course and simplified sexual and reproductive health, gender, and HIV-prevention curriculum that Local Football Association Coaches in Gauteng and the Western Cape deliver to their teams on the pitch.

The training provides Coaches with applicable adolescent-friendly teaching concepts and techniques and fun, educational games to use seamlessly during their soccer practices.

Through this, Grassroot Soccer and Local Football Association Coaches plant the “seeds” of agency and self-efficacy for adolescent boys and young men to become allies and positive role models in the prevention of gender-based violence in their communities.