07/31/2012 05:38 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2012

Soccer as a Bridge to Promote Peace and Equality in Democratic Republic of Congo

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This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction around the London 2012 Olympics.

As thousands of female athletes arrive in London for the Olympic Games hoping for glory, it is also sports on a much smaller scale that is bringing hope to young women from an isolated community in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). A unique collaboration between International Medical Corps and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is using girls' soccer matches to promote peace and change attitudes and behaviors about violence across the whole community.

Teenage girls of Bunyakiri High School, in DRC have spent their entire lives in a region at the center of one of Africa's most brutal and violent conflicts. Even in recent years following the 2003 ceasefire, South Kivu Province where Bunyakiri High School can be found, has been plagued by outbreaks of violence among rival armed groups. Sexual violence has become a constant threat for women and girls of all ages. In the past year, International Medical Corps has responded to hundreds of survivors of sexual violence across eastern DRC, many of them under the age of 18. Still, the number of girls affected is likely much higher, as fear of social ostracism prevents many from seeking help.

Sexual violence is not the only threat facing young women and girls in this region. A 2010 United Nations study found that women in eastern DRC work an average of 17 hours per day. Women carry enormous burdens in tending farms, carrying water and firewood, and caring for families. In this environment of inequality, girls and women are at risk of multiple forms of gender-based violence (GBV) including domestic violence and forced marriage.

Education and sensitization for young people about women's rights, sexual health and the consequences of GBV is a key component of International Medical Corps' Care, Access, Safety & Empowerment (CASE) and Behavior Change Communications (BCC) projects in eastern DRC that are focused on both services for survivors and prevention of GBV. These programs are based on an understanding that young people are still developing ideas about gender and relationships, which tend to be more engrained in adults. By engaging young people to develop positive beliefs and attitudes, through events such as soccer matches, the project can prevent future acts of violence, and can ultimately contribute to a more peaceful and equitable future for DRC.

Bringing together groups of girls from different villages across South Kivu province to play soccer, International Medical Corps' GBV experts can reach a wide audience to educate young people about their rights under the law, such as their protection from forced marriage under the age of 18 as well as information about where survivors of sexual violence can find help at International Medical Corps health centers. The games also build connections between communities that have been kept isolated in recent years because of violence and insecurity.

Because of the [girls' soccer] matches we play, I have met many new friends from areas outside my village. I say to my family that I am the example of gender equality because I go to play matches all over Bunyakiri." -- A 10th grade female student from Bunyakiri High School

The purpose of these education campaigns is not only to benefit young people directly, but also to make them champions within their families and community of a more promising and peaceful future.

International Medical Corps has worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 1999, providing more than one million people with health care, health sector training, gender-based violence (GBV) prevention and treatment, nutrition, food security, and water and sanitation services. Our complementary USAID-funded Care, Access, Safety & Empowerment and Behavior Change Communications projects in DRC take a comprehensive approach to addressing the needs of GBV survivors, while also preventing future cases by changing community attitudes around gender and violence.