By: Stuti Basnyet, USAID/Nepal

On January 12, Jed Meline, USAID’s Acting Mission Director in Nepal, and I flew down to Dhangadi, a district in Nepal’s far-western region, to attend the championship of an eight-day women’s football (soccer) league tournament. This was a unique outreach opportunity. Most field trips we embark on are meant to either monitor the programs or to showcase the impact of our programs. This time we were going to attend a USAID-supported football tournament – an exciting rarity – with Jed scheduled to speak and present awards to the winning teams.

Designed to build the confidence, leadership, team building and networking skills of local, rural women, the sports activity was part of USAID program’s youth leadership efforts to expand the participation of youth and vulnerable populations in the development process of their communities. With the large youth bulge, almost 50% of Nepali population under the age of 35, USAID encourages all partners to find innovative ways to positively engage youth.

The winning team with their trophy. Photo Credit: USAID/Nepal

When we reached Mahendranagar, the venue, it was late in the afternoon, cold and foggy, but more than 10,000 people were present at the tournament. The women in the two final teams had been playing for an hour plus and were a little tired but enthusiastic and dedicated. For most this was their first experience with football and also first opportunity to display a skill in public. Tulsi Gurung, the captain of the winning team told me, “This has been such an amazing experience. It’s built my confidence so much. I really believe, we, the young people, are the potential energy of the country. When we come together, we can do something special. This tournament has been a proof of that.”

“After playing in the tournament I have gained confidence to pursue my effort to be a national football player, just like the boys,” shared Basanti Rana another player from the winning team.

To me, what made the tournament so remarkable – other than seeing young, rural women with no prior football experience, confidently display their newly learned skill in front of thousands – was the partnerships forged to organize the league. While USAID designed the program, trained the women, funded the tournament, and purchased equipment and gear, the effort and support that came from the local public and private sectors was inspiring.

Local police provided security all through the eight days; businesspersons funded the stage set-up, bought refreshments, and provided electricity back-up generators; local media provided coverage to ensure the tournament news got spread all across the country; government attended the conference and spoke at various ceremonies providing official legitimacy and broader recognition; and young people volunteered their services to ensure the tournament ran smoothly. Working with such a broad range of local partners was truly the key to the tournament’s success – a small, but important example of the bigger impact that partnering with the broader community can bring.

By the time the elaborately organized awards ceremony finished, it was almost 7:30 p.m., and much colder and much foggier.  Right before handing the final trophy, Jed addressed the audience, “It’s increasingly important that all of Nepal find innovative ways to positively engage the power of youth, so that young people like you can become a force for positive change. We are better off – our communities, societies, and countries – when youth have the opportunity to live up to their potential. You have the potential; you’ve clearly demonstrated that today, of being the generation that will help overcome Nepal’s tremendous challenges.” His remarks were met with nodding heads and generous applause.