Sierra Leone’s first professional women’s football league launched on October 15th with a match in the northern city of Makeni, kicking off a six-month season in which 12 clubs from across the country will compete.

“We are so proud to make this history as the first ever national women’s premier league,” Asmaa James, chairperson of the Sierra Leone Women’s Premier League Board, told AFP. The Mena Queens of Makeni battled the Kahunla Queens from Kenema during the opening match with Sierra Leone’s first lady, Fatima Bio, in attendance at the crowded Wusum Sports Stadium in Makeni.

The 12 privately-owned clubs will compete for a cash prize and trophy in April, James said. She said women’s football had long been neglected in the West African nation of about eight million people, adding that it was now time for women to showcase their potential. “We have engaged the girls and their parents and also the team managers and other football stakeholders to allow the girls to play football,” she said.

Supporters hope the league will boost the success of the national women’s team, which failed to qualify for the 2022 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations in Morocco.  But they face several key challenges, including inadequate venues.  The national 45,000-seater stadium in Freetown, opened in the 1980s, is currently being renovated with support from the Chinese government.  Then there are the logistical hurdles of criss-crossing the country – where only about 10% of the road network is paved, according to the African Development Bank – to travel to matches.

In a meeting with the Sierra Leone Football Association (SLFA) and the Women’s Premier League Board on October 12th, President Julius Maada Bio said his government takes women’s empowerment very seriously and would work to elevate women’s football in the country to international standards.

SLFA President Thomas Daddy Brima said the new league would boost employment.  The league will help shine a light on the women’s game both locally and internationally, and will put Sierra Leone on the map in the sport, he added.

Key challenges to gender equality and women’s empowerment in Sierra Leone include a lack of economic independence, “high illiteracy and entrenched customs and traditions” and an “absence of progressive laws that protect and promote participation for women”, according to a September report by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest nations.  The former British colony ranks 182 out of 189 countries on the United Nation’s Human Development Index.  (© AFP 18/10 2022)

Wikimedia Commons

Most countries in Africa have women’s football leagues, though many are not professional and face challenges of apathy and economic uncertainty without commercial sponsorship or government support.  The oldest leagues are in Nigeria and South Africa, according to Peter Alegi in his 2010 book African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game

In Nigeria the first women’s football league was founded in 1978, and in 1990 the first national championship was launched.  Since then the top five women’s teams in Nigeria have been Pelican Stars FC of Calabar (8 championship wins), Rivers Angels SC of Port Harcourt (7 wins), Bayelsa Queens of Yenagoa (5 wins), Delta Queens FC of Asaba (5 wins) and Ufuoma Babes of Warri (4 wins).  In recent years the most successful team has been Rivers Angels who have won the league five times since 2015.  In March 2020 the Nigerian Women’s Football League (NWFL) rebranded its three leagues, with the top flight branded as the NWFL Premiership.   (Source: www.thenwfl.com )

In South Africa the SAFA Women’s League known as Hollywoodbets Super League for sponsorship reasons, is the top flight of women’s soccer. The competition is run by the South African Football Association and has taken place annually since 2009.  Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies FC from Pretoria are the most successful team with 4 wins, including the two most recently run competitions (2020-2021 season was cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic). The Sundowns also won the inaugural CAF Women’s Champions League in 2021 defeating Hasaacas Ladies FC from Ghana. Other top teams in South Africa include Bloemfontein Celtic, with two championship wins, and Palace Super Falcons Women’s Academy.  The latter was formed in 2002 by infrastructure engineering company, the Palace Group, with the aim of developing women’s soccer and to reduce the involvement of young girls in criminal activity, substance abuse and other social ills by participating in sport.  They have been champions three times and runners-up twice.  The women’s leagues in South Africa have 144 teams from 9 provinces, the largest female participation of any country in Africa. (Source: www.safa.net )

Nigerian Asisat Oshoala, said to be Africa’s greatest woman footballer, here seen playing for Barcelona in the 2019 Champions League Final – Wikimedia Commons

This year’s Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON) was proof that the popularity of women’s football is growing fast on the continent. 45,000 people gathered on July 23rd to watch the South African women’s team Banyana Banyana (The Girls) beat hosts Morocco, to clinch the championship trophy and earn a place in next year’s Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.  It was the first continental title for the side after five final defeats.

Sports commentators say women’s football is gaining in popularity, in prize money and in participation on the international stage.  SAFA says that more than 400,000 women and girls are now playing football, while Morocco’s four-year strategy aims to bring 90,000 girls into football by 2024, while also launching a national U-17 league.

In this year’s Women’s AFCON, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) boosted prize money by 150%, awarding the winners of the title $500,000, $300,000 more than Nigeria received when they won in Accra in 2018. Teams who finished bottom of their group received $100,000 in participation fees. But, while it’s a move in the right direction, it is still only one tenth of the $5 million received by the winner of the men’s Africa Cup of Nations. 

On July 26th, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa vowed equal pay, urging the country’s ministers of finance and sports to up the bonus to match the men’s team.

In 2020, CAF launched a five-pronged strategy to grow women’s football on the continent and launched a Women’s Champions League in 2021. The plan includes promotion, training and ensuring more women get more opportunities in football. (Source: aljazeera.com 31/7 2022.  See also: Al Jazeera’s The Stream feature: “Is women’s football in Africa at a turning point?” youtube.com )

Further Reading:

WAFCON 2022: South Africa beat Morocco to finally land first title: www.bbc.co.uk

The top ten most exciting women’s leagues in Africa: www.goal.com

#ItsTimeItsNow for CAF Women’s Football Strategy: www.cafonline.com

For further information about the Africa Research Bulletin:

Economic, Financial and Technical Series: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/14676346

Political, Social and Cultural Series: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/1467825x