Soccer players take shot at sex ed

U.S. group Futbol Sin Fronteras says the girls they work with have lots of questions that no one else is answering

Tucked away in Granada’s labyrinth of colorful streets, Kelly Pope of Fútbol Sin Fronteras (Soccer Without Borders) draws diagrams of ovaries and drafts lesson plans about sexual health.

“The two main goals of our NGO are to keep kids in school and to prevent pregnancies,” says the 22-year-old former college soccer player from Massachusetts. “But when I arrived in Granada last year, I noticed we don’t talk about sex, sexual health or sexual consequences, which I thought was contradictory to one of our main missions.”

As Pope investigated why the topic was avoided, she realized she was battling deeply rooted cultural barriers.

Kelly Pope and friends

“Talking about sex is taboo,” says the recent Bowdoin College graduate, who is interning with Fútbol Sin Fronteras. “Perhaps it is Nicaragua’s strong religious influences or machismo, but it’s barely talked about in homes, and not taught correctly in schools.”

Pope saw the situation as an opportunity for Fútbol Sin Fronteras, an international organization that uses soccer and education to empower girls. Now she’s designing workshops to educate the girls on topics from puberty and menstruation, and the differences between love and abuse, good touches and bad.

“The girls are really curious, but they have no idea about sexual issues,” Pope says. “One girl asked us whether she was pregnant because she often felt tired. When we asked if she had ever had sex, she said no. The link between sex and pregnancy was unclear (to her).”

The information the girls are getting in school isn’t much better. Alejandra, 11, said she was taught that if a girl has sex before her period, she could die. She said the girls are taught to cover up to not provoke rape.

Pope’s efforts to introduce basic sex education were first met with opposition from her organization’s Nicaraguan staff. But after some discussion, they eventually gave her the go-ahead.

“At first, there was a fear that if we talked about sex we would be promoting it, or that the parents would pull their girls out of the soccer program. It was like, ‘We can talk about puberty and hygiene, but we can’t talk about that’,” Pope said. “But the topic kept coming up, and after awhile they said it would be a good thing to talk about because the girls ask often.”

With Latin America’s highest teen pregnancy rate—one in four pregnancies in Nicaragua are among girls ages 15 to 19, and birthrates among girls under 14 nearly doubled between 2000 and 2009, according to government statistics—more needs to be done to combat the taboo mentality, said Urania Ruiz, director of sexual education advocacy for Profamilia, a reproductive health organization in Nicaragua.

“Very few families in Nicaragua talk about sexual issues; from a very young age, we are taught that talking about sex is bad and prohibited, partly because it’s been that way for generations and passed on,” Ruiz said. She says religious factors also contribute to the situation.

Non-governmental organizations play a key role in supplementing the lack of information about sex education, Urania says.

Pre-game cheer: Futbol Sin Fronteras is creating a safe place for girls in Granada (courtesy photo)

“Many positive changes in youth are seen as a result of NGO projects,” Urania says. “The girls show more empowerment on issues of sexuality and are more capable of handling their sexual relationships and talking about the issue with their parents.”

Pope hopes that the optional workshops will offer the girls more information about the changes they are experiencing with their bodies, and the consequences of sexual encounters. She says she will try to teach the girls while remaining sensitive to their cultural context.

“It’s a fine line between imposing a belief and teaching proven health methods,” she said. “Some girls refuse to play soccer when they have their period, for example. Tampon use is a controversial topic because if a girl uses a tampon she is considered to no longer be a virgin. These are cultural beliefs that are different from my own.”

The girls respond

Thirteen-year-old soccer player Lizbeth says she is excited for the sex-education workshops to start.

“I want to learn how to take care of my body and understand what I’m going through; and I want to be prepared,” she said.

Lizbeth says she knows girls younger than her who have already had sex.

Lizbeth’s mother is also supportive of the workshops. “In school, the students receive an overview, but there is still a lack of information and many kids don’t have enough communication with their parents,” she says. “I think they will receive useful information and I trust the trainers from Fútbol Sin Fronteras.”

Fútbol Sin Fronteras Program Director Larkin Brown says a handful of parents support the workshops, but she says she is nervous about how the rest of the parents will perceive their sex-ed efforts. Still, she thinks the risk is worth it.

“Teen pregnancy rates are so high here that there is a very clear need for access to more information. In other countries it is commonplaces for these types of conversations to happen at home and school, but here it’s different,” Brown says.

“It is important to be careful in a culture that is machista and has reservations about talking about sex, but giving correct information with no opinion attached is worth the risk,” she said.


  • Ken

    Looks good, but please be very careful.

    Far from having “reservations about talking about sex,” I have found Nicas to be more open and frank in discussing sex than gringos. Perhaps this openness arises later and younger girls are uninformed, or maybe this particular set of girls is uniquely unformed, but the degree of ignorance alleged strikes me as unusual.

    Also, “information” and “ideology” are very difficult to disentangle.

    To assume for instance that machismo explains girls’ sexual ignorance may be an ideological imposition. Machismo is a more complex and subtle cultural code than many of its outside critics realize, and one that includes power bases for women too. It is also part of the cultural context that these girls will probably have to navigate their entire lives. To fault or dismiss it at the outset may make any “information” presented irrelevant to the girls’ real lives.

    Related, I question whether preventing pregnancies is a desirable goal. So-called “teenage pregnancies” are common in Nicaragua, as they are throughout much of the world and were in the US until fairly recently. They aren’t automatically bad things, and if you if you convey the message that they are, you risk making girls who become pregnant feel like failures and resent their babies.

    Instead of prioritizing prevention, I recommend prioritizing informed choice. Provide the girls with genuine information, but let them discuss the pros and cons of pregnancies and decide for themselves–then support the girls who choose pregnancy too.

    The main thing to remember is that US sexual norms are hardly a model to be imposed upon the rest of the world. The sexual assault rate in the US is fairly high by global standards, as also is the HIV rate; marriages not only fail at alarming rates but delayed marriages and those who never marry are increasing; childless women in their 30s and older flock to fertility clinics in a desperate attempt to have the children they postponed for careers; the US is the world headquarters of pornography; and every years the US sends around a million frustrated sex tourists around the world, some to Nicaragua, to get what they presumably can’t find in the US. Don’t let US ideology blind you to the reality that sexual health in the US is pretty dismal–and hardly a model to be imposed on the rest of the world.

    But if you’re very sensitive (which should include a willingness to question and criticize your own cultural values) I wholeheartedly support this initiative. My sense is that the opportunities for girls in Nicaragua are most dangerously limited during the preteen and early teenage years, and I applaud your program for helping to fill this gap. And yes, information and informed discussions about sex are a welcome component.

  • Mary McVeigh


    Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. Our staff was shocked and disappointed by the author’s portrayal of our initiative, for exactly the reasons you mentioned. Yesterday, we asked for the article to be removed as it includes several misquotes and misrepresentations of our approach to this topic. We have submitted a response to this article that we hope the Nicaragua Dispatch will publish soon.

    Thank you again for your comment and support of a thoughtful, nuanced, collaborative effort to understand this complicated issue.


    Mary McVeigh
    Executive Director
    Soccer Without Borders

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  • Claire Luke

    As the journalist who wrote this piece, I would like to defend my article. First, I would like to reiterate that in no way did I misrepresent myself as anyone other than a journalist reporting on a story about Soccer Without Border’s new sexual education initiative.

    Though it’s true that I previously inquired about volunteering some hours with the organization last month because I believe they are a powerful promoter of positive change among girls in developing countries, my intent to write an article on the new sex ed initiative for The Nicaragua Dispatch was more than clear to all staff and participants interviewed for the story.

    Second, I would like to confirm that all quotes are accurate. The in-country director, Larkin, and the woman spearheading the sex-ed project, Kelly, both provided me with all of the information and quotes detailed in this article, knowing full well that they were speaking to a journalist who would publish the information. I stand by these quotes as accurate and precise.

    My purpose in reporting this story was to write an objective article about the interesting new sex-ed initiative from Soccer Without Borders. The article highlights the good work that the NGO is doing in Granada as well as the great amount of trust that its participants and their parents seem to have in the organization. The girls I interviewed were happy that this issue was being discussed and happy to share information. I find it difficult to understand why anyone from Soccer Without Borders could be shocked by an article written from information and quotes provided directly from their staff—and one that highlights the good work they are doing in the community. Indeed, the in-country director told me she didn’t have a problem with the article, so I am not sure why the view from Boston is so distorted.

    Claire Luke

  • Devry

    Sorry I posted this in the wrong spot, i wanted it her in this tread.

    Devry May 23, 2013
    You know I might be dumb, but the original article didn’t seem like it portrayed anything bad about the organization really, I am reminded of the blog earlier this year that talked of understanding the differences in NA culture and Nica culture (remember the babies on the motorcycles vs the giant baby strollers), teenagers get pregnant here for a myriad of reasons, back in the 60′s the same was in Canada/USA. The author of the article may not have presented everything the organization does, but she did highlight one very important aspect and I am sure that will lead to increased involvement of others for the betterment of all Nicaraguans in future

  • ronnie

    Good work Luke.

  • Randy Higgins

    I thought this was a nice article. I think it is important to understand that young girls have questions and often ask other young people. The young lady that started this was 22 years old. If If were 13, I would certainly ask her, to a 13 year old someone 22 is worldly. That is natural. I don’t see this article as portraying what this young lady is doing as wrong. This is a natural converstion for young women to have.
    I am sure the young nicas talk about this stuff all the time and are glad to have someone else to talk to.

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