Football in Africa is a game some people believe should only be played by men. To avoid parental disapproval, some women have to sneak out of their homes just to play. Players are trolled for their gender, and let’s not even mention the gender pay gap.
Thousands of miles away from that grassroots reality, there are three African countries at the Women’s World Cup in France – Nigeria, South Africa, and Cameroon.
And as former Nigerian national team player, Ayisat Yusuf-Aromire watches the current Super Falcons team take center stage at the tournament, she is painfully aware of how women’s football has often been relegated to the back seat with bonuses and allowances unpaid.
Now a coach at FC Pohu club in Finland, Yusuf-Aromire says even though some progress has been made, the Nigerian men’s team still enjoys far better privileges than the women’s.
“Men get better treatment for everything – camping allowances, salaries, wages, and welfare packages,” she told CNN.
The ex-footballer, who played defense for Nigeria’s national team, still has unhappy memories of the 2004 African Women’s Championship (now the Africa Women Cup of Nations), organized by the Confederation of African Football (CAF).
Yusuf-Aromire, 34, remembers staging a sit-in protest with her teammates in South Africa after winning the championship. “We defeated Cameroon 5-0 in the finals, winning the title. But Nigeria’s Football Federation refused to pay us our bonuses and pending allowances, claiming they did not have any money,” she told CNN.
“We did not trust them to pay us in Nigeria, so we refused to leave our hotel in South Africa till they paid us,” she added.
The Super Falcons eventually got their bills settled after pressure from players and the media.
In 2016, the Super Falcons staged a similar protest over unpaid bonuses outside Nigeria’s parliament after winning the Africa Women Cup of Nations in Cameroon.
CNN contacted the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) for comment but has not yet received a response.
Late payments for footballers of both sexes are a chronic problem on the continent, but pay disparities between male and female players are even more prevalent.
South Africa’s Times Live reported earlier this year that the national women’s team – Banyana Banyana – were paid 10 times less than the men’s side, Bafana Bafana.
Banyana players received R5,000 (about $338) in a competitive match for a win, while Bafana players received as much as R60,0000 (about $4,000) when they won a game, according to a report in South Africa’s Times Live.
However, in May, South Africa’s Football Association took steps to redress the balance by increasing Banyana Banyana’s pay, making it equivalent to their male counterparts for the first time, according to a report in Times Live newspaper.
“This will go a long way towards closing the pay gap between the men and women footballers in this country, and it is a happy day for South African football‚” the country’s Football Association President Danny Jordaan is quoted as saying in the report.
Nigeria too, has recently taken steps to correct the wage disparity between male and female players. The NFF told CNN it conducted a pay review in 2017 resulting in basic match bonuses for the Super Falcons being raised to $3,000 per player, while the basic bonus for the men’s team was reduced from $10,000 to $5,000 per player.
It’s noteworthy that none of the highest paid female footballers in the world are African players.
Norwegian footballer, Ada Hegerberg tops the list of well-paid women with an annual income of €400,000 (about $451,660), but it is still about 282 times less than Lionel Messi, who is the highest paid male footballer earning $127 million.
The enormous pay gap in the African game can partly be attributed to poor handling of female football teams by their sports associations, says Samuel Ahmadu, a member of the women’s committee for the NFF (Nigeria Football Federation).
“Marketing and promotion have not been enough for these women and their teams. If there is no consistency in promoting them, then there will be little attention for their tournaments and games,” he told CNN.
Football tournament sponsors typically pay attention to teams that enjoy large viewership. Women’s teams in Africa struggle to attract sponsors for their games due to poor publicity, says Ahmadu.
The 2017 Africa Cup of Nations organized by CAF and sponsored by companies like oil and gas company Total offered, a $4 million prize to the winners of the competition. The following year, AWCON, the women’s version of the tournament, offered just $80,000 to the winners.
Twenty-five countries in Africa including Ghana, Cameroon, and South Africa have professional women’s leagues at home, but minimal sponsorship opportunities and prizes mean that most players have to balance the game with other work commitments, says Ahmadu.
Abuse, sexism, and harassment
Besides the divides in pay, sponsorship, and marketing, Africa’s female players have to contend with discrimination on and off the pitch.
Lolade Adewuyi, a chief strategist for the Nigerian sports communications company CampsBay Media, says there are sexist cultural beliefs that encourage prejudice against women in sports on the continent.
“There are obvious cultural barriers for women getting into sports. While the boys are allowed to go play out in the neighborhood, girls have to help in the house,” he said.
“Boys are conditioned from an early age to see sports as a way of proving their masculinity while many girls are conditioned differently,” Adewuyi added.
Yusuf-Aromire also admits fighting patriarchy at many levels to get to where she is today. “To play football, I had to sneak out of the house. I used to get punished for just playing. At a point I had to stand up for myself because I didn’t have the support of my family,” she said.
Women football players also face abuse and derogatory remarks while on the pitch.
South African defender, Nothando Vilakazi was trolled about her gender during the 2016 Rio Olympics after a picture showing her hands over her groin area during a match surfaced online.
In the same year, a senior official with the Nigerian Football Federation blamed the country’s failure to qualify for the Rio Olympics on ’lesbian players.’ Homophobia is rife in Nigeria, which criminalized same-sex relationships in 2014.
Despite the harassment encountered by some female players on the continent, there are signs of hope for the women’s game on the horizon.
CAF, the Confederation of African Football, is making bold steps towards investing in women’s football.
Last year, confederation president Ahmad Ahmad, in a speech at the CAF women’s football symposium, said the organization would prioritize women’s competitions and support local federations in managing women’s teams.
There are also plans to launch an African Women’s Champions League, according to Yasmine Arkoub, co-founder of sports consulting firm, Melting Sports, who says she is encouraged by the interest level from CAF in improving participation in women’s football.
Ex-Super Falcons player Yusuf-Aromire has also launched the SheFootball Initiative to encourage young Nigerian girls to get on the pitch.
“I created the campaign because I thought about my upbringing. I never had parental support to play, and I want it to be different for other girls out there,” she told CNN.
Yusuf-Aromire offers training for girls and provides football kits for those who can’t afford them.
“There are a million girls out there who want to play football but are not being encouraged. They just need the support and access to opportunities,” she said.