Touch­ing lives: Tribal girls learn to fly through power of Beau­ti­ful Game

Pro­gramme run by US cou­ple in Ranchi helps chil­dren from dif­fi­cult back­grounds make fresh start through foot­ball, re­ports Ayantan Chowdhury

Sunday Express - - FRONT PAGE - AYANTAN CHOWDHURY @ Ranchi

THE way to the ground is dusty. From a dis­tance it re­sem­bles a paddy field. Or at best a makeshift area for chil­dren to play. It is 5.30 in the morn­ing and you sud­denly hap­pen to chance upon tribal girls from vil­lages close-by kick­ing a foot­ball. Their laughs and shrieks of joy echo around the area.

But it is not a story of hap­pi­ness. Just like their life, it’s some kind of mir­a­cle that these re­silient girls are kick­ing around a foot­ball — jovial and care­free. Other times they might have fallen vic­tim to hu­man-traf­fick­ing, or work­ing some­where as a do­mes­tic help, that is if they sur­vived abuse from their al­co­holic kins.

These girls from Yuwa, an NGO run by Amer­i­can cou­ple Franz Gastler and wife Rose Thomson Gastler, have used the Beau­ti­ful Game to try and over­come ob­sta­cles. Their se­lec­tion process too is unique. It needs school and prac­tice at­ten­dance and vote from peers on whether they are up­hold­ing val­ues of the in­sti­tu­tion.

Hav­ing grown up in ut­ter poverty and with parental pres­sure push­ing them to­wards early mar­riage, these girls never dreamt of ven­tur­ing be­yond the con­fines of Ranchi, for­get the coun­try. But with the help of Yuwa, the girls got the chance to par­tic­i­pate in the Donosti Cup in San Se­bas­tian, Spain in July.

How­ever, as with life, noth­ing comes easy for these girls. Need­ing birth cer­tifi­cates for the visa process, the se­lected girls landed up in the lo­cal pan­chayat of­fice to re­quest birth cer­tifi­cates (many were born at home). A few were ‘hu­mil­i­ated and slapped’ and needed lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tors’ in­ter­ven­tion. “What is one slap if we end up be­ing happy in the long run? It was a trip to re­mem­ber ul­ti­mately,” a girl said. In­ci­den­tally, quite a few girls were se­lected for the age-group na­tional team but due to ‘abu­sive be­hav­iour’, the NGO has stopped send­ing these girls to camps. Through the power of foot­ball and ed­u­ca­tion, the girls now have a fight­ing chance at suc­ceed­ing in life!

It was a cold night in Ranchi. And ir­re­spec­tive of the weather, most men from the 15 vil­lages in the Or­man­jhi block of Ranchi in­dulge in heavy drink­ing. Priyanka (name changed) had a par­tic­u­larly tir­ing day. She was try­ing to sleep when she heard noises from her par­ents’ room. It was late at night and she knew that’s when her drunk fa­ther usu­ally came back. She thought it must be the usual fights, with her mother com­plain­ing about his drink­ing habits. She de­cided to check if her mother was al­right.

What she saw made her trem­ble in fear. Her fa­ther was try­ing to bash her mother’s face with a brick and kill her. The young girl, at her wit’s end, jumped in to save her mother. En­raged, her fa­ther turned his at­ten­tion to­wards his daugh­ter. Pick­ing up a bam­boo stick, he started thrash­ing her. For­tu­nately, mother and daugh­ter came out alive.

Priyanka had heard of Yuwa School. Her friends played foot­ball there. They looked happy, some­thing she had not been for a long time. She rushed there with gashes across her face and body. Ru­ral Jhark­hand sees six out of 10 girls drop out of school and be­come child brides. The state also has the low­est ra­tio of teach­ers for each govern­ment school in the coun­try as well as rank­ing low­est in fe­male lit­er­acy. The state is among the worst in hu­man traf­fick­ing, do­mes­tic abuse, san­i­ta­tion and throws up sev­eral chal­lenges to the em­pow­er­ment of women. It’s one of the rea­sons Franz Gastler, 35, from Min­nesota, US, started Yuwa. A Bos­ton Univer­sity g rad­u­ate, Gastler came to In­dia in 2007 as a busi­ness con­sul­tant with the Con­fed­er­a­tion of In­dian In­dus­try (CII). By the sum­mer of 2008, look­ing for new chal­lenges, Gastler joined an NGO, Kr­ishi Gram Vikas Ken­dra, in Jhark­hand, which runs ed­u­ca­tion pro­grammes.

“I moved into a mud hut in a ru­ral vil­lage, and I was com­pletely fas­ci­nated by that life,” Gastler says “One of the first things that struck me was that the boys all go out to play, while the girls work.”

Ini­tially, he thought giv­ing kids the op­por­tu­nity to study in a re­puted English medium school was the way for­ward. Start­ing a small schol­ar­ship fund along with school friends Stephen Peter­son, Greg Dem­ing, Erik Od­land, in 2009, Gastler went about it un­til he learnt that the kids he was spon­sor­ing were not at­tend­ing classes reg­u­larly.

“When the fa­thers got to know, they started tak­ing away the money to buy al­co­hol. Al­co­holism is a huge prob­lem here. The schools also mis­treated the girls and cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment was a reg­u­lar fea­ture. See­ing that the money was go­ing to waste, I stopped it. That fail­ure made me re­alise some­thing. In In­dia, noth- ing comes easy.”

While work­ing at the NGO, one of Gastler’s stu­dents told him she wanted to play foot­ball. That sim­ple re­quest set Yuwa in mo­tion. The pro­gramme, which started in 2009, was named Yuwa, de­rived from the Hindi word yuva for “youth.” Gastler, with his three friends, pooled in enough money to launch the pro­gramme. Con­vinc­ing par­ents to let daugh­ters play was the first hur­dle. But once that was crossed, suc­cess came al­most im­me­di­ately. In less than a year, 13 of Yuwa’s girls made it to Jhark­hand’s age-group state teams, and seven made it to the un­der-13 state team, whose rank­ing shot to fourth from 20th. When Yuwa was founded, it was a schol­ar­ship fund de­signed to give dili­gent stu­dents in lowqual­ity lo­cal govern­ment schools chance to at­tend a bet­ter, lo­cal pri­vate school. Girls who were just on the schol­ar­ship would come to Yuwa once a month to col­lect school fees. By the end of the first year, they had missed 4050 days of school.

In 2015, Rose Thomp­son, ed­u­ca­tion di­rec­tor, co-founded Yuwa School with Gastler. Ac­cord­ing to them, most schools in the area were over­crowded and em­ployed abu­sive teach­ers. It was that lack of a learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment that in­spired Gastler and Thomson to start Yuwa School. “The qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion leaves them un­pre­pared for a good job,” Rose says. “Nu­tri­tion lev­els are poor. If these girls grew up where I did, they would be ap­ply­ing to Stan­ford, Har­vard or Yale. Here they fight for the ab­so­lute ba­sics.” The girls are taught to read and write, and they learn about fe­male health and self-es­teem. They’re also taught skills to be­come fi­nan- cially in­de­pen­dent. With foot­ball in the pic­ture, girls play­ing in the team came to Yuwa school ev­ery day, and through the power of their team net­work, they en­cour­aged one an­other to go to school to the point where they rarely missed a day. To en­roll in Yuwa school, a girl had to join one of the soc­cer teams.

Ev­ery sys­tem in Yuwa is geared to­wards em­pow­er­ing girls. Team cap­tains main­tain at­ten­dance records for the rest, and also man­age a small fund for uni­form, shoes, and balls. Coaches are drawn from for­mer trainees. Like Kalawati Ku­mari, 17, a high-school stu­dent who started train­ing with Yuwa in 2009

and was se­lect- ed for Jhark­hand’s U-19 and U-17 teams. In 2011, she com­pleted coaches’ train­ing pro­grammes from the Tata Foot­ball Acad­emy, Jamshed­pur, and Bhaichung Bhutia Foot­ball Schools. Off the ground, the girls have odds stacked against them. Most fam­i­lies don’t ex­pect them to fin­ish school. Fif­teen is the com­mon age for mar­riage, and they are ex­pected to be bound by the strict bound­aries of house­work and farm work. “Abuse and ap­a­thy. Those are the big­gest chal­lenges for the girls here,” Gastler says. “They are ig­nored and not al­lowed to dream. Noth­ing that is in­tended for them comes to them. They are jeered and taunted for wear­ing shorts, or play­ing with boys.” Once in a while, the chance to go abroad comes up. Hail­ing from tribal vil­lages, these girls never thought about leav­ing Ranchi. But now they can dream of a brighter fu­ture. The se­lec­tion process is rig­or­ous and, some might say, un­con­ven­tional. Ac­cord­ing to Rose, “...the girls were cho­sen af­ter a care­ful process that took into con­sid­er­a­tion their com­mit­ment to im­prov­ing them­selves through Yuwa; their school and prac­tice at­ten­dance; foot­ball skill; and most im­por­tantly, char­ac­ter. Ev­ery girl was ranked by her team­mates based on( these) val­ues: pos­i­tiv­ity, hon­esty ... self­less­ness and( if she) in­spired unity. They were cho­sen as much by each other as they were by their coaches.”

It is not easy con­vinc­ing peo­ple at home. More of­ten than not, rel­a­tives and oth­ers of­fer ad­vice to the con­trary. “My par­ents were ready to let me go. But rel­a­tives started brain­wash­ing them and telling them that the gora (for­eigner) will sell me off to the high­est bid­der abroad,” Rima, one of the girls, said. When girls se­lected for the Don­esti Cup in Spain went to the lo­cal pan­chayat of­fice to re­quest for birth cer­tifi­cates (many were born at home) in or­der to make pass­ports, they were told it could only hap­pen if they paid hefty money. Then they were told to sweep the pan­chayat of­fice if they couldn’t af­ford the sum. When a cou­ple of girls, af­ter be­ing hu­mil­i­ated in this fash­ion, re­minded the of­fi­cer that pass­port dead­lines were ap­proach­ing, they were slapped. “The dif­fer­ence in how they are treated in Jhark­hand and how they were treated in Spain is so vast that you can’t be­gin to com­pare ,” Gastl er says. Spain was a riot. The Yuwa girls, with their com­bat­ive skills on the field, and ef­fort­less charm off it, were treated like roy­alty. They be­came the dar­lings of the lo­cal me­dia, went for a tour of Real Madrid’s train­ing ground, me tX a bi Prie to of Real So­ciedad.

Ev­ery­one from hos­tel staff to those work­ing in the can­teen started at­tend­ing their matches. “We loved it so much,” Su­nita Ku­mari says. “It was not dif­fi­cult to make friends even though we did not speak their lan­guage. We had peo­ple trans­lat­ing for us. We would play in the morn­ing, then go swim and play in the sea. Then train or play in the evening again, and then go to par­ties.”

The only thing that the girls hated was food. “Con­ti­nen­tal dishes made no sense to us. We learnt Span­ish for ‘not any more’ and kept re­peat­ing it when we were of­fered food!”

For Su­nita, whose par­ents do noth­ing, the trip was some­thing unimag­in­able. She has al­ready spo­ken at Women De­liver, the largest plat­form for women speak­ers in Copen­hagen. That too, days af­ter her mother died. She has two el­der sis­ters, both mar­ried off at an early age. Through coach­ing at Yuwa, she takes care of her younger sis­ters, both of whom want to em­u­late their role model Su­nita! When Yuwa School be­gan, they had five full-time teach­ers for 45 stu­dents in grades 1 through 8. This year, en­rol­ment has in­creased to 80, with seven full-time teach­ers. Thirty-two of the 35 Yuwa coaches are girls ac­tively in­volved in de­ci­sion-mak­ing for the foot­ball pro­gramme. Se­nior girl play­ers are tak­ing on more lead­er­ship roles. Five have started lead­ing life-skills work­shops, seven are teach­ing af­ter-school English and math classes and more than 25 have spo­ken pub­licly. Ev­ery week, girls ex­press them­selves in work­shops and bring up top­ics that are nor­mally taboo — such as child mar­riage, al­co­holism and do­mes­tic abuse.

Yuwa’s child de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cer has been vis­it­ing fam­i­lies two to three times a week to dis­cuss fu­ture plans. Girls have re­ported that par­ents be­come more sup­port­ive af­ter these meet­ings. Yuwa also co­or­di­nates bian­nual work­shops with Jhark­hand po­lice­women about le­gal rights.

So­ci­ety tells girls to fit in. Yuwa coaches girls to stand out.

Girls of Yuwa School at Real So­ciedad’s San Se­bas­tian sta­dium dur­ing their visit to Spain ear­lier this year. (Right) Stu­dents at­tend a class in the school in Ranchi

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