Before the playing field can be levelled, sportspeople must first be able to actually set foot on it. In many countries in the world, girls who wish to do so must first overcome a number of obstacles barring their way.

The first time Kimleang kicked a football she was ten years old. The boys in her neighbourhood asked her to join their game and she agreed. “They didn’t really want me to play,” she says, “I was a girl, it was strange! But they needed one more player.” So, gender stereotypes were cast aside while Kimleang and her new-found teammates collected plastic bags and bound them together with string into a football-shaped object. But the match was a one-off. Kimleang enjoyed the game “even though I wasn’t very good,” she admits. But football just wasn’t a game girls played, so she didn’t even consider it. Instead she took up dancing. “But my parents hated that, too,” she laughs.

They had other concerns. Financial hardship meant that the oldest of her four siblings had to work to support the family. To make matters worse, her father started drinking and often became violent. Kimleang’s mother bore the brunt of his alcohol-fuelled rage.

For many women in Cambodia domestic violence is a part of everyday life. One in five have experienced assault at the hands of a partner as national statistics revealed in 2016. According to a recent UNICEF report, 42 percent of adolescent women themselves believe that wife beating is justified. The subordination of women in Cambodian society is entrenched in a set of traditions and beliefs passed on from generation to generation. “Men are gold and women are cloth” is a Khmer proverb that expresses how highly regarded the male gender is, while as a woman it is easy to become tarnished.

At school, children learn the traditional Khmer prose poems, Chbab Proh and Chbab Srey, which enforce strict codes of conduct for men and women. Girls and women are expected to be gentle, reserved and obedient. For many years, it was a belief Kimleang didn’t question. It was only when a school friend persuaded her to play football again and she rediscovered her passion for the game that Kimleang decided it could indeed also be a “girl thing”. She still wasn’t good, but she was hooked and begged her parents to allow her to play. She told them resolutely: “If you want me to stop dancing you must allow me to play football”. After three attempts, her parents relented. “They didn’t really allow me to play football, it was just a way to get me to stop dancing,” Kimleang admits. When neighbours started talking and relatives asked them why they allowed their daughter to play a “boy’s sport”, Kimleang’s parents asked her to give up her new hobby. “Football is not good for girls,” they said. “No girls play.”

By then, Kimleang had already met members of the Sport and Leadership Training Academy (SALT), who wanted her to join the Mighty Girls programme. She turned to them for help and they sat down with her parents to explain the opportunities of the football and the programme to them. They may not have been fully convinced, but they agreed. Kimleang had the permission she needed.

Every morning, Kimleang now gets up at 5am to travel across Cambodia’s second largest city, Battambang, to the Mighty Girls home where most of the girls live. Many of them come from other provinces, but as Kimleang’s family lives in Battambang, she doesn’t need to board. Together with her fellow “Mighty Girls”, she has breakfast and changes into her uniform before they walk to the academy. Each day is a mixture of classes in different academic subjects and football training. “Except on Mondays”, Kimleang laughs, “then we have gymnastics”.

Kimleang enjoys the combination of studies and sports and feels that they complement each other well, learning important lessons both on and off the pitch: “I don’t think just working in a class is enough. Sometimes you need to learn by doing activities, like football. Football has taught me a lot of things related to life… about teamwork, specific goals there are to be achieved…and to never give up. Sometimes when you are learning you don’t see the goal and you give up half way. But with the Mighty Girls team, even when we do give up, someone to calls out to you and encourages you. It has shown me: we can and need to achieve the goal together.”

The “Mighty Girls” programme was initiated in 2010 and has grown steadily with every year. Today, girls aged 14-20 receive special support in both education and football. The programme targets girls from disadvantaged backgrounds and works towards three main goals: To provide a “safety net” for individuals at risk of human trafficking, support girls’ education and to promote gender equality. The programme both offers individuals opportunities they would otherwise not have, teaches them important life-skills and builds their confidence.

Samy Seng, accountant, live-in “house mother” at SALT Academy and herself a former Mighty Girl, remembers when she first met Kimleang: “She was shy and lacked self-confidence when she joined the programme as a 14-year old.” Something that is difficult to imagine for Etienne Delaune, who works at SALT as Development Manager and has only known Kimleang for just under a year. Though it still took some time for her to overcome the gender divide and talk to him openly, he describes her as “much more outspoken and confident than your average Cambodian girl.” Kimleang has retained her modesty and starts giggling when asked to describe herself. So, Etienne volunteers his view of her: “She’s definitely confident, a smart girl, a very hard worker, tough at the surface but very nice and gentle inside.” Samy adds: “She has flourished into a strong vocal advocate for girls’ rights and has become the Mighty Girls team captain.”

The Mighty Girls include some of the most promising female football players in the country, and form the core of the Cambodian National Women’s team. Another aim of the Mighty Girls programme is to develop its participants into young leaders and encourage them to pass on their own experiences. At the end of each day, Kimleang and her team mates travel to communities around Battambang to give football training sessions. Kimleang’s team has become champion of the province for the past two years in a row. When her parents saw them together and that the young players were greeting her with emphatic cries of “Teacher! Teacher!” they couldn’t hide their surprise. An experience that made them trust the academy and understand what the programme has done for her, says Kimleang. Whenever people now ask them “Why are you letting your daughter play football?” they answer proudly that it has turned her into a role model. Kimleang has her own way of dealing with the criticism she still often has to face. When people confront her and say: “You are a girl, you should think about your beauty. If you play football you will get dark skin and big muscles,” she asks them confidently: “Do I really look bad as a girl? Do you think my shape is bad?”

This coming October, Kimleang will graduate. Her plans for the future are clear: “I want to study English literature and Management. I wish that I can study in the US. First I think that the US is good for English because I like learning English and secondly, because women’s football is really big. I would love to play football there for my university. And then come back and work here at SALT.” One day, she dreams of working for the Cambodian Football Federation – “but it is really hard to get in to,” she admits. After winning the National Championship with the Mighty Girls team last year, she has already achieved one goal that previously seemed impossible to even aim for.