DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - She has been called a prostitute by her peers, manhandled in public and received countless death threats, but Sierra Leone’s football chief Isha Johansen refuses to buckle in pursuit of her goal of developing women’s and girls football across Africa.
One of only two women worldwide to currently head a football association, Johansen is nearing the end of a four-year term dogged by the world’s worst Ebola outbreak, political infighting and corruption allegations, and a torrent of misogynist abuse.
Yet the president of Sierra Leone’s Football Association (SLFA) announced on Tuesday that she would stand for re-election as she seeks to clean up football’s image in the West African nation, and inspire more girls and women to get into the game.
“Many girls dare to dream of making it big in football, but they are scared,” Johansen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I hope to inspire more women and girls to say no to gender discrimination, bullying and sexism in the sport,” she said. “I want to be a pioneer for good governance, gender equality and inclusivity in football, to make a difference in a man’s game.”
Her announcement comes amid a deepening rift between Sierra Leone’s sports ministry and the SLFA against a backdrop of allegations of match-fixing against the national football team.
FIFA said it would send a task-force to Freetown this month to carry out ‘integrity checks’ on members of the country’s football association - having suspended a meeting to pave the way for the SLFA elections until these checks are completed.
“The government, the SLFA and FIFA need to come together to clear the air,” said Johansen, who was briefly detained last year along with two of her SLFA colleagues by Sierra Leone’s anti-graft officials before being released without charge.
“We need to move on from this saga of corruption and mismanagement allegations,” the 53-year-old added. “That is why I want to run for a second term - to build upon the foundations I have put down, and to complete a lot of unfinished business.”
Johansen said some her of proudest achievements during her tenure have been setting up a national women’s football league, and facilitating the training of female coaches and referees.
If re-elected, she plans to get more young girls involved in football at grassroots level, and also playing it in schools.
“With more and more Sierra Leonean women playing football, more and more qualifying as coaches and referees, we have a lot of role models to inspire girls to get involved,” she said.
Alongside her ambitions for the future of football in Sierra Leone, Johansen is braced for the prospect of more abuse - verbal and physical - if she wins a second term as president.
“I have been called all kinds of vulgar names ... received so many death threats ... but I haven’t entertained such abuse.
“The challenges of being a woman leading in a sport dominated men are many ... but they have also given me the strength to forge ahead, rather than buckle,” Johansen added.
She believes perceptions are shifting when it comes to women in football - having been inspired by FIFA’s appointment last year of Senegalese ex-U.N. aid worker Fatma Samoura as its first female secretary general.
In an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2015, Johansen said FIFA was not yet ready for a woman as president.
Now, she thinks the time could be nigh.
“There is more of a commitment towards the women’s game in FIFA - and to encourage more women in positions of power,” Johansen said. “Things are changing quicker than I expected.”
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org