October 11th marks the International Day of the Girl Child, an opportunity to reflect and seek solutions to gender inequity faced by girls globally. As multilateral organizations, governments, and civil society work to rectify inequalities faced by girls in areas such as access to services, education, sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), and freedom from gender-based violence (GBV), Grassroot Soccer believes that sport can be an effective platform for change.

The issues facing adolescent girls in many developing countries are daunting. For example, in South Africa girls are highly vulnerable to sexual and intimate partner violence – and up to eight times more likely to be HIV positive. Simultaneously, ingrained gender norms and stereotypes influence the beliefs and actions of adolescent boys, with up to one in three adolescent boys reporting to have perpetrated intimate partner violence in South Africa (GOAL Trial, 2013). To shift social dynamics, empowering girls with knowledge and self-efficacy must coincide with engaging boys, to transform gender norms and contribute to the creation of safer environments for all.

In South Africa, a collaboration between Grassroot Soccer, WITS Reproductive Health Institute, the Bill & Melinda Gates FoundationSonke Gender Justice, and the Population Council is directly implementing this approach. The program, known as Girls Achieve Power (GAP) Year, is working with schools and communities in South Africa to encourage a culture of health and safety, and promote school retention among adolescent girls, while at the same time shifting gender attitudes and encouraging positive behavior among adolescent boys. Using the language of soccer as a tool to communicate these messages, and enlisting community-based life coaches (peer mentors) as facilitators, the program supports a healthy and productive progression for adolescent girls through secondary school while expanding the impact evidence base around asset-building approaches for adolescent girls.

recent report published by Grassroot Soccer, in collaboration with the Ford Foundation, emphasizes that well-designed sport for development initiatives can contribute to improved sexuality education and SRHR outcomes. Sport’s role as an effective communication tool is rooted in the concept that sport is engaging, physical, gendered, empowering, and about relationships. Creating an environment where comprehensive sexuality education is delivered by trained peer mentors, where girls and boys have a safe space to discuss gender issues, and where girls and young women have the opportunity to build knowledge-based self-efficacy, allows sport to build gender equity.

Most importantly, sport-based programs can work. For example, in a 2016 preliminary study in Soweto, South Africa, on the Ford Foundation and United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women-supported SKILLZ Girl curriculum, Grassroot Soccer saw noteworthy increases in the percentage of adolescent girls who do not justify any form of violence against girls and women (Barkley et al, 2016). Significantly, the organization found marked improvements in participants’ ability to disclose and have discussions around relationships and violence, as well as reduced experiences of intimate partner violence among girls in a romantic relationship.

The stakes are higher than ever for girls. Now is the time for innovation and collaboration. Now is the time to find approaches, such as effective sport-based programs, that seek to resolve gender inequalities, improve outcomes and build opportunities for the 1.1 billion girls around the world. Girls and young women can be incredible forces for change, and now, more than ever – as Sony says – it is our time.