Imagine if playing football was a defiant act, a statement of personal freedom. That is the case for many girls in Cambodia, where it is widely frowned upon for young women to engage in sport. Working to change this, and to offer safety and confidence for in-need youth, is a group called the Mighty Girls, which is part of the football-focused community organisation SALT (Sports and Leadership Training) Academy in Battambang.

Linda Choeun faced anger and abuse when she started playing football at 15, eventually leading to her being thrown out of her home. A trip to South Africa during the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ for the FIFA Football for Hope Festival set her life on a new course, and a place in the Mighty Girls program gave her a path forward. She is now 22, studying English at university and working full-time to give back to the organisation that helped her.

“SALT and Mighty Girls provided me with education and life skills, so I have been a great beneficiary. I was able to become a leader, a referee, a coach and a teacher to girls who come from similar situations. I have had opportunities to travel to other countries to learn new things and help develop the organisation,” Choeun said about her journey.

This process of helping at-risk youngsters, mentoring them and eventually getting them to help others in need is the goal of Sam Schweingruber, who founded SALT in 2006. “We want the girls to grow up and play first, and then get a chance to work and so on. They have a long way to go and need to be supported, so we need to be patient. My dream is that SALT Academy will be basically run or organised and supported on all levels by Mighty Girls graduates,” said the Switzerland-born teacher and coach.

Schweingruber sees Choeun’s growth as exemplary for what can happen to improve the grassroots of gender equality and poverty in the southeast Asian country. “[Linda] is a role model, and she is an example of how we would like to see things develop. But we are well aware that this is only a stepping stone and all our boys and girls need much more support to get a solid foundation. Only then can they develop the qualities that will help them help Cambodia change.”

Slow, steady progress
For Schweingruber, the Mighty Girls are part of a long process of developing football as a social aid in Cambodia. He has been a player and a coach, winning the league title twice with Phnom Penh Crown. SALT’s largest program is a football league that combines coaching with life skills workshops, vocational training and community engagement. But working with women’s development has taken on special significance for him and the organisation.

“I asked my volunteers and staff in 2007 about having some girl’s teams in the league to start playing and have fun, and their reaction made me understand that working with girls was key for me to stay relevant with my mission in Cambodia. I actually soon after stopped coaching boys and only worked with girls for many years,” said Schweingruber, who went on to organise and coach Cambodian women’s national teams at a variety of levels. Players from the Mighty Girls were central to those teams, though development has been slow.

SALT and the Mighty Girls continue to move forward however, providing a refuge for 30 or more girls, including a dozen or so that live in a communal home and receive meals and extra education along with their football training and life coaching. One success story, Choeun, sees the young women around her as inspirational. “The Mighty Girls are role models helping to change parents and the society’s mind-set about girls. I see more and more girls in Cambodia getting involved in football and education. It is a big change.”

It is clear that Schweingruber sees how far there is to go, but he takes heart from their progress. “At a young level, we have lots of players interested, and more games, but to develop it to a more serious level, we need clubs interested and a league. [Off the pitch], we have seen our young leaders grow in confidence and gain a much better understanding of the world, its issues and the development potential of football.”

This is part of FIFA.com's ongoing series highlighting NGOs that are part of Football for Hope, FIFA’s global initiative to help improve the lives of young people through football.