How Natsiraishe Maritsa is changing the narrative for young girls in Zimbabwe

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AT just 17 years old, Natsiraishe Maritsa was already on the path to becoming a gender equality champion in 2021 when she was named winner of the IOC Women and Sport Award for Africa, in recognition of her efforts to empower young girls in Zimbabwe through taekwondo.

Now, two years on, she has stepped onto an aeroplane for the first time in her life, to travel to Cabo Verde to participate in the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa (ANOCA)’s Gender Equality Forum and receive her trophy.

Maritsa received the IOC award in recognition of the work with her foundation, the Vulnerable Underaged People’s Auditorium, which transforms the lives of young girls within her community.

The project is one of many being carried out in the framework of Olympism365, the IOC strategy that aims to strengthen the role of sport in society and create positive change through sport.

Saddened by the impact early marriage was having on those around her, Maritsa decided to set up the Vulnerable Underaged People’s Auditorium when she was still a teenager.

Natsiraishe Maritsa receives her trophy after being named the winner of the IOC Women and Sport Award for Africa in 2021

She recognised how practising taekwondo since the age of five had protected her from following the same path as many of her peers, keeping her occupied and teaching her valuable lessons that she wanted to pass on to other young girls.

According to UNICEF, in Zimbabwe:

  • One in three women aged 20 to 49 will have married before turning 18;
  • Contributing factors include poverty, a misguided feeling of protection, and societal or religious norms;
  • Consequences include the increased risk of early pregnancy, limited career opportunities and domestic violence.

“I’ve seen a lot of my friends, classmates and close relatives getting married at a very young age. I saw the negative effect it had on them, and I realised that I needed to do something,” Maritsa explained. “I didn’t have the financial means to help, but I had qualities and skills that I’d learned from taekwondo. I decided I would try to impart these to the young girls in my community.”

Creating a safe space for girls and women

When Maritsa created her foundation, she was simply offering free taekwondo training to young people in a safe space as a form of empowerment.

But as the number of girls coming to her foundation increased, she felt she needed to expand the services on offer. Now, Maritsa helps girls develop their life skills and depend on themselves to meet their essential daily needs.

“We’ve started doing empowerment programmes, such as how to make liquid soap and bake simple food. Skills like these take away a dependence on men to provide financially,” explained Maritsa. “We’ve also been distributing sanitary products so that young girls don’t put themselves at risk by doing illicit things to try to access these.”

Striding forward with the IOC’s support

The impact of the Vulnerable Underaged People’s Auditorium continues to go from strength to strength.

With the recognition and grant she received as the winner for Africa for the 2021 IOC Women and Sport Awards – which celebrate change agents in the pursuit of gender equality – Maritsa was able to register her foundation officially that same year.

Add this to the equipment she also receives from World Taekwondo to support her training sessions, and she’s in a strong position to extend her reach beyond her local community.

“The award has given me so much encouragement and motivation. I’ve realised that I’m not alone in this,” said Maritsa. “It’s told me to learn more, to research, to try to better understand what people in my country really need in life. It is something that I believe will change the lives of so many people. It has uplifted my society.”

Bringing together Africa’s Olympic Movement for gender equality

The ANOCA Gender Equality Forum is being held on 2 and 3 October in Cabo Verde, bringing together key decision-makers within Africa’s Olympic Movement.

The Forum participants will discuss how to guide sports organisations in becoming more gender-balanced in every aspect of their work.

The stories and experiences of panelists such as Maritsa will provide compelling insights and inspiration for all the participants, who are ready to champion equality at the highest levels of their organisations.

Nominate the next IOC Gender Equality Champions

Nominations for the 2023 IOC Gender Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Champion awards, previously known as the IOC Women and Sport Awards, are now open. Six trophies – one at world level, and one each for Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania – are awarded annually to outstanding individuals like Maritsa who have been advancing gender equality, diversity and inclusion in and through sport.

Nominations must be submitted to the IOC by 20 October 2023 – for more information and to fill in a form, click here.

This is an edited version of an article originally published in the Olympic Review.