Changing the Game for Young People in Health and Development

By Sidibe, Michel | UN Chronicle, September 2016 | Go to article overview

Changing the Game for Young People in Health and Development


Sidibe, Michel, UN Chronicle


This summer, hundreds of millions of people around the world followed the twists and turns of two major football tournaments: the 2016 Copa America Centenario in the United States of America and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) European Championship 2016, hosted by France. It is a testament to the enduring power of the beautiful game that matches played at such venues as the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California, and the Stade Velodrome in Marseille were followed by fans from far beyond the Americas and Europe; people from all corners of the globe cheered on their favourite teams and players. Football crosses borders and continents like no other sport, and as such can be deployed as a significant force for change.

In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which identified sport as an "important enabler" of development and recognized its growing contribution to the promotion of peace. We know that in local communities around the world, often all that is needed to bring a group of young people together is a ball and a patch of grass or urban concrete. Wherever I travel, I come across girls and boys teaming up, marking out goal posts and playing football.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has long realized that football can play an important role in raising awareness of HIV, especially among young people vulnerable to infection. In 2010, the Protect the Goal campaign was launched to raise awareness about the virus ahead of that year's World Cup in South Africa. It continued during the African Cup of Nations tournament in 2013, where HIV prevention messages were disseminated on giant screens at all stadiums hosting matches. The captains of each of the 16 teams participating in the competition read out a statement calling on players, fans and young people to support the campaign. During the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, 2 million condoms were distributed in cities where games were played, while free, rapid HIV tests were offered at local fan sites. UNAIDS International Goodwill Ambassadors Michael Ballack and David Luiz have used their influence to help UNAIDS disseminate key messages about HIV testing and prevention to millions of people.

Grassroot Soccer is another powerful initiative that recognizes the potential of football to inspire hearts and minds. Developed by a group of former professional players, in collaboration with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Zimbabwean Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education and public health experts, Grassroot Soccer combines three effective principles of education:

* Young people learn best from those they respect.

Adolescents listen to and emulate their heroes. Grassroot Soccer engages professional players and other role models as HIV educators.

* Learning is not a spectator sport.

Adolescents retain knowledge best when they are active participants in the process, teaching others what they have learned themselves.

* It takes a village.

Role models can change what young people think, but lifelong learning requires lifelong community support.

This fantastic programme has now reached more than 1.3 million adolescent girls and boys with comprehensive HIV prevention and life-skills education. The skills that empower young people to navigate the particular challenges of adolescence are essential. This generation of youth is the largest in history and presents developing nations with both a big challenge and a tremendous opportunity. If countries invest in adolescents now to keep them healthy and strong, they will receive a significant demographic dividend 10 to 15 years down the line, helping to build resilient societies prepared to meet future difficulties.

The knowledge and skills conveyed by role models and peers through football and other sports help young people build self-assurance, share experiences, take control of their lives, make choices about their sexuality, protect themselves from HIV and other infectious diseases, avoid unwanted pregnancy and stride into adulthood with confidence. …

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