Felicite Rwemarika, a leading figure in Rwandan football, visited the Home of FIFA on 8 November just a day after winning a prestigious award from the International Olympic Committee. The inspirational figure, who has been central to creating an environment where young women can play football in the east African country, met with FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura sporting a trophy given to her at the IOC 2016 Women and Sport Awards.

“It’s a privilege for FIFA to have Felicite, as a strong woman leader, at the Home of FIFA to show us the trophy she got from the IOC. More importantly demonstrating that through strong commitment to football, you can make a big change in people’s lives,” said Samoura after the meeting. “She was so enthusiastic in sharing with us how much power she has been given in her country, and how she has been able to expand the representation of women in leadership roles in football and thinking about ways to do that even more. It was a good experience talking to her and thinking about ways FIFA can help her build.”

For her part, Rwemarika credits her time in this year’s FIFA’s Female Leadership Development Programme, the IOC award and meeting the likes of Samoura with helping to further her progress. “I never believed I would meet such big dignitaries,” she said. “That someone in that position would have time to talk about women’s football, it not only promotes women’s football, but it helps my confidence to know that the work we’re doing is valuable.”

The 2015-2016 FLDP, which was introduced by FIFA to help increase the number of female leaders and role models in football, involved 33 participants and more than a dozen mentors from across the globe. Rwemarika is a perfect example of the programme’s effectiveness. “We had the passion, we liked football, but it helped us to realise the professionalism we needed to have to become leaders. We learned strategies to reach other people and convince them to support women’s football, as well as how to communicate in order to get more people out to cheer for the women and support the game.

“When people see you have gone through programmes like that, the people you work with give you more respect and listen to your plans, which was not there before.”

Recognised for hard work
Football has not until recently been accepted as a sporting option for girls and women in Rwanda. Rwemarika said she knew the sport could have a positive impact on the populace following on the bloody turmoil in the mid-1990s. “I looked around and saw that women in Rwanda were forbidden to play. It was believed to be a male sport, but I believed it was our right. It was just after the genocide and women were among the most hurt by that. So I wanted something to unite women, to bring focus. So I wanted to bring a change of mentality, to create some new possibilities.”

Although it has been slow going, Rwemarika has seen a lot of change since, which can be seen in the growth of the girl-focused Live Your Goals programme in Rwanda that started in 2015, but grew quickly this year. She said the IOC award is a validation of the work and encourages her to keep moving forward. “The award has been a great opportunity and is the highlight of my entire life. It’s on behalf of women who have been sacrificing their time to promote women in sports and on behalf of young girls who have taken time to play football after being told it is only a male’s game.

“It’s exciting because we meet a lot of constraints. You sometimes think you are not supposed to be doing these things, but the recognition helps me to know this is not the end, but the beginning. So we can work even harder.”

Taking a moment to look forward, she sees her role as working to leave a legacy in her home country. “My priority is to see many other women in leadership positions. The issue will not move fast without that. Ten voices are stronger than one. If we increase in number, we can continue to change the mentality.”