Sierra Leone's first professional women's football league launched on Saturday with a match in the northern city of Makeni, kicking off a six-month season in which 12 clubs from across the country will compete.
"We are so proud to make this history as the first ever national women's premier league," Asmaa James, chairperson of the Sierra Leone Women's Premier League Board, told AFP.
The Mena Queens of Makeni battled the Kahunla Queens from Kenema during the opening match on Saturday with Sierra Leone's first lady, Fatima Bio, in attendance at the crowded Wusum Sports Stadium in Makeni.
"This is the first time women are participating in our local Premier League, it's an honour that our best footballers are from Bombali District", Sierra Leone president Julius Maada Bio said on Saturday during the kick-off.
"Football is about peace and cohesion. We want to see beautiful football, all the teams are winners."
The 12 privately-owned clubs will compete for a cash prize and trophy in April, James said.
She said women's football has long been neglected in the West African nation of about eight million people, adding that it was now time for women to showcase their potential.
"We have engaged the girls and their parents and also the team managers and other football stakeholders to allow the girls to play football," she said.
Supporters hope the league will boost the success of the national women's team, which failed to qualify for the 2022 Women's Africa Cup of Nations.
But they face several key challenges, including inadequate venues.
The national 45,000-seater stadium in Freetown, opened in the 1980s, is currently being renovated with support from the Chinese government.
Then there are the logistical hurdles of criss-crossing the country -- where only about 10 percent of the road network is paved, according to the African Development Bank -- for matches.
In a meeting with the Sierra Leone Football Association (SLFA) and the Women's Premier League Board Wednesday, president Bio said his government takes women's empowerment very seriously and would work to elevate women's football in the country to international standards.
SLFA President Thomas Daddy Brima said the new league would boost employment.
The league will help shine a light on the women's game both locally and internationally, and will put Sierra Leone on the map in the sport, Brima added.
Key challenges to gender equality and women's empowerment in Sierra Leone include a lack of economic independence, "high illiteracy and entrenched customs and traditions" and an "absence of progressive laws that protect and promote participation for women", according to a September report by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Sierra Leone the former British colony ranks 182 out of 189 countries on the United Nations's Human Development Index.
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