Retired lesbian soccer player Joanna Lohman is in Nigeria for about nine days to teach soccer skills to local girls as an empowerment and team-building tool against sex trafficking.

The trip was organized by Sports United, a U.S. State Department initiative through which U.S. Soccer sends former USWNT members to foreign countries for players to use soccer as part of a larger educational framework addressing serious regional problems.

Before the former Washington Spirit midfielder arrived in Benin City in the country’s Edo state last weekend, the “Rainbow Warrior” called us to talk about why she’s doing this.

”Part of the program is showing young women that there are other options, and sport is a tremendous resource for them to change their future,” Lohman told Outsports from the airport. “It allows them to become part of the team. Most of the young women in these areas are very isolated. So part of becoming a team is very empowering for them. It allows them to have friends and local coaches and adult figures who are accountable for them.”

For example, in past programs, Lohman has seen a team of girls notice when one teammate doesn’t show up for a while. The other teammates will check on her, creating a new protective force and ownership over one another.

“I can see the benefit [soccer] has for me personally and for so many who are able to play the sport, especially young women,” Lohman said.

Along with teaching young girls about graciously accepting victory and defeat, she feels soccer teaches them how to lead, how to take part in a team and contribute themselves to a group cause in worthwhile ways.

“Being able as a woman to tap into aggression and to compete everyday is really good for you, too,” Lohman added. “I love giving a young woman her first opportunity for playing the game — it’s incredibly fulfilling for me.”

To participate, most of the girls are bused in from outer villages that they have rarely, if ever, left. Few have regular access and opportunity to play soccer and none own sports bras or properly fitting shoes to keep their feet from burning on the city turf in the over 100-degree heat. Program organizers and local ambassadors sometimes provide soccer jerseys or shoes and adjust the sports practice schedule to fit with the girls’ schooling needs, avoiding the sweltering daytime heat.

Although Lohman retired from professional soccer in April, the 37-year-old athlete has been working with Sports United for more than five years now.

This is actually Lohman’s fourth African trip with Sports United. Previously, she’s traveled to Botswana and Niger to empower young girls, and to Côte d’Ivoire to help boys and girls learn concepts of reconciliation and working together following the country’s recent civil war.

Nigeria and Edo in particular are a major source of sex trafficking victims in Europe, according to an August 2019 Human Rights Watch report. Young girls are lured with promises of education, professional training and good-paying “house jobs” abroad, made to take dangerous journeys to Libya or Europe and then forced into sex work under the pretense of paying off thousands in “debt” for travelling costs.

These girls are subsequently pimped out, raped, impregnated, forced to get abortions in unsanitary conditions without pain medication or antibiotics, and are sometimes made to marry their abusers. Their pimps will stalk them, confiscate their passports, threaten to report them to local police or use beatings, drugs, extortion, torture or the murder of their family members if the girls try to escape.

So, to combat that, Sports United works alongside other local non-government organizations to educate, empower and unite the girls against falling victim to such schemes.

While some might be surprised that this program even exists under the Trump administration — a presidency known for its “America First” policies — Lohman said she’s grateful that its funding hasn’t been pulled.

She’s also grateful that Sports United works with Nigeria’s pre-existing community NGOs so the relationships and education she fosters among the girls during her time there continues after she leaves.

In Nigeria (which is predominantly Muslim and Christian), homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment and death. But even though Lohman has self-identified as lesbian since the age of 21, her short hair and androgynous appearance aren’t read as “stereotypically gay” in Africa. Many locals ask if she has a husband and aren’t familiar with LGBTQ terms like “gay” or “homosexual.”

She could speak openly about LGBTQ issues in Botswana, a country with federal anti-discrimination protections for gays and lesbians. But in Nigeria, she has been advised not to. Nevertheless, she still believes there’s progress in the fact that she’s there.

“That’s been challenging for me, to incrementally push for progress while not singing it from the rooftops or waving a rainbow flag,” Lohman said. “I look different, I’m sure, than any other woman they’ve seen before, and many of them end up following me on social media and learn after the fact that I’m gay.”