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How A Skate School Is Changing Girls' Lives In South Africa

Photographed by Tim Moolman.
Johannesburg may be nicknamed “The City of Gold”, but for many of its estimated 4.4 million inhabitants, inequality stifles their lives. Amidst the towering skyscrapers of the city’s Central Business District (CBD), families are living below the poverty line. This includes thousands of young children who are navigating the dangerous city streets in search of a safe space to play and laugh.

“Johannesburg is the perfect place for Skateistan,” the skateboard NGO’s Development and Communications Officer, Mbali Mthethwa tells me. “Our presence here will make a difference for the young kids who are in a difficult space.”

A Johannesburg skate school is Skateistan’s fourth major project since its inception in 2007. The non-profit organisation already runs schools in Afghanistan and Cambodia (you can see young girls having a blast in Kabul in our photo series here), where skateboarding and education are used as tools for youth empowerment.

In August, they opened their first centre in South Africa, on the east side of the CBD. Two months later, it’s clear to see that the new school is already making a difference.

“When I’m sad, I come here to feel happy,” an 11-year-old girl called Anmari tells me. “I learn how to skate and I make new friends… It feels like I’m at peace.” Anmari’s words echo a collective need. Peace, for so many women growing up in South Africa, can be difficult to find.

According to Emily Craven, Head of Programmes at ActionAid South Africa, violence against women is a serious problem in the country – and girls living in urban spaces such as Johannesburg are particularly vulnerable.
Photographed by Tim Moolman.
South Africa has one of the highest rates of AIDS-related deaths in the world and teenage girls are disproportionately at risk from the HIV virus. This is partly due to the high levels of sexual violence they face: according to ActionAid UK statistics, an estimated 500,000 women are raped every year in the country. That translates into around 1,370 cases every day.

“The location of this new school is near to quite a few densely populated urban spaces, areas that have large migrant populations and areas characterised by poverty and violence,” Craven explains. “Not only are they hot beds of gender based violence but they have also regularly been the sites of outbreaks of xenophobic violence over the last few years.”

So far, around 47% of the school’s 200 young students are girls. This is a significant statistic and one that Skateistan is keen to maintain. The organisation tells me they’re committed to closing the gender gap and providing more opportunities for girls in the area. It’s the same ethos that makes their skater school in Afghanistan so unique, too. The contributing factors may be different – but the effect in both countries is the same. Where poor living and social conditions are rife, many young girls lack the basic academic and social skills to advance themselves. In the heart of South Africa’s biggest city, Skateistan hope to provide what so many girls are desperately lacking: a safe place where they’re free to be themselves.

“South Africa is a patriarchal society,” Mthethwa explains. “And as such, women and girls find themselves in positions where they are often belittled or treated as less because of their gender.” When I ask for examples, she tells me about an abhorrent practice known as “ukuthwalwa” (meaning “to carry”) – a form of abduction that involves kidnapping young (often underage) girls and forcing them into marriage. This often takes place with parental consent. It’s a horrifying marker of a woman’s worth – and goes some way to explaining why Skateistan is so determined to focus on empowering young girls in Johannesburg. As Mthethwa sums up: “These young girls know only about becoming wives and mothers and aren’t afforded the opportunity to experience anything beyond that.”

Skateistan, however, is breaking the mould. Like Anmari, 11-year-old Raeesa feels happiest when she’s flying on four wheels. “When I told my friends at school that I know how to skate, they didn’t believe me,” she says, before telling me how she brought them with her one Saturday to prove it. How did they react, I ask? “They said “Yoh! Bra…you know how to skate?!””
At the Johannesburg skate school Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings are dedicated to girls-only skating sessions. “We’re all about making sure girls learn that there’s power in being a girl,” Mthethwa says. “The girls feel empowered by mastering the board.”

Raeesa isn’t the only one who’s hooked on these sessions. Skateistan’s Programs Officer, Kelly Murray, tells me that the girls-only groups are proving to be a real hit, with increasing numbers of young women signing up every week.

“There are few spaces for young girls to just be girls and be ok with it,” Mthethwa adds, “without having to worry about their make-up and their hair and their looks. Without the fear of rejection from boys, or being seen as inferior.”

Skateistan provide homework help and support with career and education planning – meaning that, as well as getting on a board for the first time, the girls are being taught that they’re more than just child-bearers, that they can be lawyers, pilots and doctors too. “Everything I do here will help me in the future,” Raeesa says, before explaining that she wants to be a pilot. Anmari, meanwhile, has plans to be a doctor.

This is how Skateistan is trying to change things – by challenging accepted gender inequality and endeavouring to make their school as female-friendly as possible, as well as by facilitating the promotion of women into positions of leadership.

But alongside the educational outreach work, it is the hook of skateboarding that reels every girl in, and inspires them to stay. According to Raeesa, skating gives her a rush. “My heart goes like 'ku kum, ku kum'” she says excitedly, describing the feeling she gets on her board.

You can donate to Skateistan here.

*All student names have been changed for child protection purposes