'When I play football, I am safe.'

(Courtesy of Sabine van Wechem)

(Courtesy of Sabine van Wechem)

In Brazil’s most violent favelas, girls find solace in football — and each other.

Hearing gunshots is a common occurrence in Complexo de Pehna. But once a week, the residents of this Brazilian favela also hear footballs hitting goal posts and girls cheering each other on.

Rebeca, Dryka and Jessica are three athletes who find solace on the football pitch in one of Rio’s most violent neighbourhoods. It’s a place for girls to play together — and it is also the only place they are safe outside of their homes.

(Courtesy of Sabine van Wechem)

(Courtesy of Sabine van Wechem)

Street Child United built the field to give girls a space to play without fear. The organisation convinced local residents, police and even gang members to declare the football pitch off-limits to the guns and violence that plague the rest of the favela.

Almost a quarter of Rio de Janeiro’s population live in favelas — Brazil’s low-income urban communities. Overpopulation, poverty and violence often force girls out of school in these communities. “I love school. I have great friends there. But it’s hard to go when there’s shootings,” 16-year-old Rebeca explains. The police are in constant conflict with heavily armed drug gangs in her neighbourhood. On average, one Rio resident is hit by a stray bullet every seven hours.

Rebeca, 16

Rebeca first kicked a football at age 11. Now she dreams of one day playing professionally.

“Football made me believe that anything is possible,” she says. “It is my place of safety away from drugs. I used to have a lot of friends who were involved in drug gangs and used drugs. I didn’t know how to cope with that because I wanted something else.”

Rebeca’s family is supportive of her playing football now, but that wasn’t always the case. “Football is for men,” she remembers them saying. Despite their disapproval, Rebeca joined a team. And it wasn’t long before she convinced them that she is a “guerreira, a warrior” and has the “same capabilities” as boys.

Although she dreams of a career in football, Rebeca knows the importance of education: “We need education to build our lives.” But many of her peers stopped going to school because of the dangers of getting there — and Rebeca isn’t always sure she wants to take the risk.

(Courtesy of Sabine van Wechem)

(Courtesy of Sabine van Wechem)

Jessica, 26

At a young age, Jessica got involved with drug gangs and started smuggling across the Paraguayan border. “I didn’t like it, but it paid the bills,” she explains. “I felt like I had no choice.”

Jessica says her life turned around when she found Favela Street Foundation, an organisation that trains young people to become independent football trainers in their neighbourhoods. The organisation helped Jessica leave the gang and realise her lifelong ambition of playing football: “Now I am a trainer… and I love it. People treat me with more respect and now I’m an example for others. I can say I’m a role model.”

But Jessica fears that if the gangs and police keep fighting, she will have to stop playing again.

“I want to continue with my studies as well so I will have more chances for a better job and a better future,” she says. Jessica is one of few girls in her community who completed school. She hopes to attend university.

Jessica is frustrated by what she sees around her: “It’s very difficult for girls or boys to go to school here. The economy in Brazil is going down, there’s no money for teachers and schools are lacking. The education level is very low, especially in favelas. This has to change!”

She finds happiness in football and in the kids she teaches. That’s why she hopes that other girls who want to play football “never give up on [their] dreams.”

(Courtesy of Sabine van Wechem)

(Courtesy of Sabine van Wechem)

Dryka, 21

Dryka is one of 10 siblings. She grew up without electricity, a TV and a stove: “When I was a child, I didn’t have many toys. I just had a ball. That’s when I started playing football.”

Today, Dryka is the captain of her Favela Street Football Team. She also works with Street Child United Brazil and helps girls who are facing the same challenges she did. Through her work, Dryka encourages children in favelas to play sports and continue their education.

Dryka tutors Rebeca and other girls in her community. (Courtesy of Sabine van Wechem)

Dryka tutors Rebeca and other girls in her community. (Courtesy of Sabine van Wechem)

Dryka completed high school and hopes to attend university. She wants to become a football coach one day.

Rebeca, Jessica and Dryka don’t know what their future hold, but they do know that once a week, they can count on the support of each other on the football field.

Thank you to Favela Street Foundation for facilitating our conversation with Rebeca, Jessica and Dryka.

This article is available in Portuguese.



Bhumika Regmi is social media associate at Malala Fund. She loves dogs and plans on naming her future puppy Mochi, after the Japanese treat.