Improving wages and ensuring job security are key elements of Mahfuza Akhter Kiron's plans to develop women's football in Asia, the continent's newly elected representative to the FIFA Council has told Reuters in an interview.
The 50-year-old from Bangladesh beat prominent women's soccer advocate Moya Dodd of Australia by 27 votes to 17 at this month's election in Manama for the women's slot representing Asia on FIFA's ruling body.
Women's football is at a developed stage in only a handful of Asian nations and struggles to get even a foothold in conservative Arab countries, where women exercising in public is a rare sight in much of the region.
Mahfuza is also dismayed by the disparity in salaries of men and women in the game.
‘The wages must be improved and there has to be job security for women footballers,’ she said, pointing out that while male footballers earn four-five million Bangladesh taka ($50,000-$60,000) annually their women counterparts receive about 20,000 taka.
‘It's completely insane. Why would a woman be interested in football? We have to develop our football in a way where women can consider it as a career option.
‘I am putting emphasis on that. Former players should have financial security in the form of pensions. We have to boost the opportunities to play, organise more tournaments, more leagues.’
Mahfuza said football had the ability to empower women and called on administrators to start building awareness of how the game can have a positive impact on girls' lives.
‘We have lot of religious and social barriers in a lot of conservative countries. It's a very difficult fight,’ she said in an interview from Dhaka.
‘The most important thing we need to do is hold more workshops and seminars and build awareness.
‘We must make the parents understand that they must come out of it. If a girl plays football, she can be secured in every way in her life. A footballer will be more confident physically and mentally.’
With local laws prohibiting women from playing the game in some Arab countries, the administrators must work with the governments, according to Mahfuza, who has previously served on the organising committees for the FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada in 2015 and the last two Under-20 Women's World Cups.
Hailing from a mostly Muslim country of 160 million people, Mahfuza, who owns a marketing consultancy firm, did not get to play the game when she was young as the idea of a girl playing football would not have been accepted by her family.
Her love of the game started while watching her four brothers play.
It had been a tough task to bring women into the game in Bangladesh, she said. There were times when she had organised tournaments for school girls but no teams entered.
‘For days I did counselling with the schools' game teachers, I had to do counselling sessions with parents and then I managed to get children to participate,’ said Mahfuza, who was general secretary of the women's sports council in Bangladesh before joining the football federation in 2008.
‘If we look at South Asia, girls are married off at a very young age. And once they are married, they can't play football as they might face a lot of problems in their families,’ she added.
While her win over Dodd raised quite a few eyebrows, Mahfuza said her hands-on experience had been the key to her victory.
‘She (Dodd) is a former footballer and I have a good opinion about her,’ Mahfuza said. ‘I told the members in my presentations that Moya Dodd has not worked from the level I aspire to do.
‘Her work was restricted to workshops and seminars. She has not worked at the grassroots level for football development.
‘My work will start from there and I am confident I can work closely with people. I also promised to help them get sponsors for women and help them improve financially.’
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