Championing change

Last month I was lucky enough to travel with our global charity partner Plan International to Colombia to meet with and play football with the young people that are part of our Champions of Change programme.

I was eager to see what Champions of Change was all about. I had heard a lot about it and I was keen to see and understand how the Chelsea Foundation and Plan were using football to help break down gender stereotypes. How is the sport I love being used to teach young men and women about equality and respect in a country that has problems with gangs, guns and domestic violence?

My first stop was visiting the community of Clemencia, a community that has very little, to put it into context this community has no running water and receives delivery of water from a tanker just once a week. It was a world away from our training facilities at Cobham – a hardcourt pitch that had seen better days, with no shade in the intense heat and humidity, but that did not dampen spirits!

The young people I met had a huge desire for change and were proud to be part of Champions of Change.  They were eager to tell me what they had learnt – how their attitudes had changed.

A question they kept asking was how many children I have – because they asked how old I was and obviously people in their society think by 28 you probably have children and are married. I was like, ‘I don’t have any children and I am not married’, and they were totally surprised. I think some thought maybe I don’t need to have children now, I don’t need to do what society expects me to do as a woman.

One of the highlights of the visit for me was getting to train with our Chelsea Foundation coaches and play a football tournament with the young people in the programme in the community of Nelson Mandela where we played a game of football based on a methodology called Football3.

I had not heard of this approach before – it is a game of three halves (thirds!) - the first half you decide as a team as to what rules you are going to play by, the second half is the match and the final half is a team discussion if you met the rules you set. There is no referee – players are encouraged to resolve their own conflicts. This approach promotes fair play, inclusion and respect.

In the game I played it was agreed that we all had to celebrate together when we scored, to make sure that a girl and a boy score a goal and to try and ensure every person on the pitch touches the ball before you score a goal. It teaches you different skills like problem solving, group discussion and creating leaders - showing that girls and boys are equal on and off the pitch.

Girls and boys in this community never played sports together – playing football has given girls the confidence off the pitch to challenge other stereotypes such as the age-old view that a woman’s place is in the home.

It has been an incredible experience visiting two different communities, each with the same goal to break down the gender stereotypes. I was there as an ambassador for Chelsea, as a role model to show the girls and boys that women can be successful in sport, that girls can be professional athletes and to show that gender equality has given me the opportunity to become a professional footballer in the UK.

My lasting memory returning home is meeting 14-year-old Juliana. 

We visited Juliana’s house and met her mother - you could see how much she has grown working with Plan International, you could see how proud her mother is of her and how the programme has not only liberated Juliana’s views, it has also changed the opinions her mother had on gender equality too.

I could see how Champions of Change is helping the next generation and how football helped to facilitate this change and it was a privilege to play a small role in helping with this fantastic project.