Eletiofe'Powerful message': the top-flight club paying men and women...

‘Powerful message’: the top-flight club paying men and women the same

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Football in Lesotho does not often generate stories of international significance but when Kick4Life FC became the world’s first top-flight club to fund men’s and women’s teams equally, an important point was made.

The coach of the women’s team, Puky Ramokoatsi, is not exaggerating when she says the move could serve as a global inspiration. “The equal budget we’ve got is going to send a powerful message and give us a platform to expand our work in promoting our rights as women.”

The development in the southern African nation follows in the pioneering footsteps of Lewes, who launched their Equality FC campaign in 2018 and whose teams compete in the Women’s Championship and the Isthmian League Premier Division in England.

As the coronavirus pandemic strangles global sport, Kick4Life’s initiative is particularly significant. “These pressures are no reason to hold back,” says their cofounder Steve Fleming, who was inspired to launch the club in 2005 when he and his brother Pete raised money for charity by dribbling a football 250 miles across Malawi. “Quite the opposite; the same crisis has given rise to an epidemic of gender-based violence here and elsewhere. The responsibility of football is to inspire positive change.”

“I feel very proud to be part of the first top-flight club to have gender equal investment,” Ramokoatsi says. “We will be an inspiration to the football community in Lesotho and globally. But it is also a natural move for us to make after several years of using football to challenge gender discrimination and empower women and girls.

“Most of our women players have experienced the same violence I have. Most men think if you play football you are a woman trying to be a man but it’s not like that. Our players have helped change attitudes towards the sport in general and in society.”

Ramokoatsi is a powerful advocate for Kick4Life because she has lived a similar life to the players the club try to help. At 16 she was raped by a friend of her father and shot in the back. She spent five days in a coma.

“It was very heavy for me to open up to anyone but I started to be able to when I got to Kick4Life,” she says. “It happened in 2006 or 2007, and I didn’t confront it until I joined Kick4Life in 2010.”

Joining the club to “just play football” led to everything she believed being challenged. As a young girl she had watched as an aunt, who was HIV positive, became increasingly ill before dying. “I did not understand what it meant,” she says of her aunt’s condition. “I was stigmatising and discriminating against her. Instead of discriminating against my aunt, I should have given her support.”

It was a brutal lesson. “It was too late for me. But I told myself that the help I did not give to my aunt I’m going to give to every person that deserves it, and I’m going to stop the stigma and discrimination around being HIV positive.”

Now she is one of the driving forces as the club expand their equality message. The ambition was never to have teams in the top flight but as the club grew that became a somewhat natural step. Their men’s and women’s teams compete at the top; the men in the Econet Premier League and the women in the Super League.

The club are self-sustaining but will look for a new £100,000 headline sponsor for the new season to compete competitively in both leagues.

The West Ham midfielder Julia Simic, who has supported Kick4Life through Common Goal (the organisation that gets footballers to pledge 1% of their income to good causes) was “buzzing” when she heard of their gender-equal budgets. “It’s such a statement,” she says. “Messages like this help give power to everything women and girls have been fighting for for years.”

Simic, having coached girls and seen the effects football can have on competitiveness, confidence and friendships, was keen her donations went to organisations that helped foster those environments. “They are so shy but they grow in confidence, bond with each other, start to communicate on the pitch and they do it all through playing – it comes naturally.”

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Kick4Life’s women’s team started with four girls in 2010, grew rapidly and helped found the Super League in 2015. Ramokoatsi’s connection with Kick4Life means football is unlikely to overtake the social side of what they do.

“I always say to people that if I hadn’t gone to Kick4Life I wouldn’t be here,” she says. “I have healed as a person. I work very hard with the help of our people to show the girls that we work with that – no matter what they’ve gone through, it’s not the end of the world. I’m still here.”

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