Footballers choose to challenge – International Women’s Day 2021

Group of male and female footballers, plus family members and supporters, at the edge of a football pitch. Everyone has their right arm raised, right hand held in a fist. In the background is a banner for Rise, a Brighton-based charity working with people affected by domestic abuse.
Photo credit: Lewes FC

To mark International Women’s Day, Lewes District Council hosted a lunchtime conversation between councillor Zoe Nicholson and two incredibly dynamic women who live in the area. Mebrak Ghebfreweldi, the founder and MD of Diversity Resource International in Eastbourne, and Karen Dobres, co-director of Lewes Football Club, were asked what International Women’s Day (IWD) meant to them. Both clearly had chosen and continue to #ChooseToChallenge gender bias and inequality but each had their own individual angle on why this day is necessary.  

Mebrak, who was born in Eritrea, had a dramatic back story in that, at the age of 16, she chose to join up with the Eritrean Liberation Front in the last years of the war to gain independence from Ethiopia. She related that 30% of those involved in the struggle were women and in fact IWD is a public holiday in Eritrea. Karen too felt that International Women’s Day was a day for celebration but was saddened that its very existence implied that full equality was yet to be achieved. Her choice to work in what is the predominantly male world of professional football took her from a career that had encompassed modelling, counselling and writing. She confessed that before she joined Lewes FC as its press officer she had not been at all interested in the game, being under the impression that the only women involved were WAGS.

As they spoke, their commitment to their life choices came through in a consistent message. Mebrak, from a country that had long years of colonial domination, recalled widespread social injustice which she stated was not fair to anyone. When Eritrea eventually became independent in 1991, the new constitution included equal rights for men and women in education, work, land ownership and pay. The ideals of 1991 were lost in a border war with Ethiopia and the growing militarisation of Eritrean society but Mebrak, hopeful and resourceful, did not give up on her country of birth as she established a training centre in the capital, Asmara, for leadership and management skills.

Karen has fought other battles. Lewes FC is the only club in the world to pay its women’s team the same as the men, and the budget for both is the same. They play on the same pitch and can access the same marketing resources, in contrast to the terrible time women footballers can have in some other clubs. At present, the women’s team are still able to play as they are in the championship, whereas the men have been stopped by the pandemic as they are at grassroots level.  

Both women were planning more than one day of celebration. For Mebrak it was an evening of multi-cultural poetry and music, with local poets Grace Nichols, who has inspired a generation, Janet Sutherland, and other younger performers. The event reflected Mebrak’s idea of her organisation as a cultural bridge, supporting ethnic minorities and refugees, celebrating diversity and working in the community to train and enable. A series of webinars had been planned in conjunction with Sussex social services but for Mebrak, IWD is a memorial to every woman who has ever fought for equal rights.

Karen said that she had bumped into Grace Nichols in the Flint Owl bakery that very morning and those listening could only agree that it was good to live in Lewes amongst such heroines! Lewes FC, owned wholly by the community and committed to it, was hosting events as diverse as a bedtime story (‘My Mummy Is A Footballer’), read by mid-fielder Paula Howes, and an evening talk about the 50-year ban on women’s football which nearly destroyed the sport.

Photo credit: Lewes FC

Both women were looking to a future full of challenge and success. Mebrak, a mother of two sons, was determined that the boys we raise and nurture must no longer become men who disrespect women. The pandemic has put injustice and inequality into sharper focus as it has hit the minority communities, many of whom serve on the front line, so badly. Mebrak, grieving for many friends, resolved to campaign for an equality champion in every organisation. Karen reflected that last year had been hard, but Lewes FC had stepped up to help out in the community and now women’s football was about to explode. With generous sponsorship from Lyle & Scott, the community-owned club wanted to achieve more diversity on the board, widening its appeal. Innovations such as prosecco on tap, a choir, inspirational women appearing on match posters and being given a chance to speak to the crowd before a home game, were all either in place or being considered.

So the conversation ended on a note of optimism, with Mebrak pointing to the many charities and communities run by women and Karen mentioning other male-dominated professions with which she was forging ‘Sister Ships’. There was still much to be done as Zoe, being a woman in politics, knew only too well but the cause of equality will undoubtedly be furthered by their combined energy and commitment.

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