Lib­er­ated by foot­ball

Ru­ral In­dian girls are kick­ing their way out of deeply en­trenched gen­der norms.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Woman - By KRISTI EA­TON

THE age­ing bus me­an­ders through the nar­row streets of a tiny vil­lage in the east­ern In­dian state of Jhark­hand, the smell of ma­nure waft­ing through the air. A thick dark­ness blan­kets the neigh­bour­hood ahead of the early morn­ing sun­rise.

It’s 5am, and the young girls hop on the bus, one by one. They range in age from slightly older than tod­dlers to young women ap­proach­ing their 20s. Some carry foot­balls.

They are head­ing to an im­mense empty field where they will hold their daily soc­cer prac­tice, the younger ones eager to per­fect their ball-han­dling skills while the teenagers act as coaches, earn­ing money to pay for their ed­u­ca­tion.

For all of the girls, soc­cer – or foot­ball, as they call it – is an op­por­tu­nity for them to over­come deeply en­trenched dis­crim­i­na­tion in their ru­ral vil­lages.

“We like to play foot­ball be­cause there are only girls, some boys, but the teach­ers say if I have a prob­lem, I can solve it with them,” says 13-year-old Prat­i­bha Ku­mari as she walks to her home af­ter prac­tice.

Prat­i­bha was al­lud­ing to the bi­ased views to­ward gen­der in In­dia, par­tic­u­larly in ru­ral areas like her vil­lage in Jhark­hand. In In­dia, 12 mil­lion ado­les­cent girls – almost one in five – have ex­pe­ri­enced phys­i­cal vi­o­lence since the age of 15, and 2.6 mil­lion of girls aged 15-19 have ex­pe­ri­enced forced sex­ual in­ter­course or a forced sex­ual act, ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics from Unicef. In Jhark­hand, six in 10 girls marry be­fore the le­gal age of 18.

“This is the part of In­dia no one in the cities of In­dia re­ally sees. But this is In­dia, this is the norm,” says Franz Gastler, founder of Yuwa, a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion teach­ing girls soc­cer.

Gastler, who orig­i­nally hails from Min­nesota, started Yuwa in 2009 and added a school for girls in 2015.

“Boys just ha­rass girls here – it’s the norm and older women have grown up be­ing abused, so they are used to it.”

Yuwa seeks to em­power the girls by show­ing them they have the right to fo­cus on their ed­u­ca­tion in­stead of get­ting mar­ried and start­ing a fam­ily, and the right to choose their life path.

For sev­eral of the girls, Yuwa has al­lowed them to travel out­side of the area around their vil­lage for the first time. Some have taken trips around In­dia or even to Spain for a tour­na­ment. Around 300 girls par­tic­i­pate in the Yuwa soc­cer pro­gramme and about 80 of those girls at­tend the Yuwa School for Girls, Gastler says.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion, which has re­ceived a Nike Game Chang­ers’ award, also hosts work­shops to ed­u­cate about health and life skills, such as men­stru­a­tion, and par­ent meet­ings. Yuwa re­ceived more than US$200,000 (RM860,000) in mon­e­tary dona­tions and grants and in-kind dona­tions in 2016 from public and pri­vate spon­sors, ac­cord­ing to the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s fi­nan­cial records.

Ex­plor­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties

Be­fore the soc­cer drills start at the early morn­ing prac­tice, the girls laugh, cheer and gossip to each other.

Here, on the soc­cer field, their back­grounds don’t de­fine them. But as they share their sto­ries, it’s easy to see the ob­sta­cles they face.

Neeta Ku­mari, 17, is one of six chil­dren, five girls and one boy (The vast ma­jor­ity of girls in Jhark­hand State have the ti­tle of ku­mari, which means un­mar­ried girl, un­til they are mar­ried and it changes.)

Her par­ents kept hav­ing chil­dren un­til they fi­nally had a boy. Her three older sis­ters got mar­ried at 16 and 17, she says, and never fin­ished their ed­u­ca­tion. Now they are moth­ers with lit­tle hope for their fu­ture. But they sup­port Neeta’s dream to be­come a jour­nal­ist and her en­thu­si­asm for soc­cer.

“I feel very good be­cause my sis­ters are sup­port­ing me,” she says.

Hav­ing changed out of their soc­cer shorts, cleats and striped socks, the girls ar­rive at the small ce­ment school on the Yuwa cam­pus in groups. Some ar­rive just as morn­ing as­sem­bly starts, their hair still wet from wash­ing it af­ter prac­tice.

An as­sem­bly fea­tures skits per­formed by some of the girls in the lan­guage of Sadri, one of sev­eral lan­guages spo­ken in Jhark­hand. The state is home to 32 indige­nous tribes, each with its own unique culture. About one-quar­ter to onethird of the girls at Yuwa are indige­nous, but most speak Sadri at home, says Rose Thom­son, ed­u­ca­tion di­rec­tor at Yuwa.

Though the school teaches English and Hindi, Thom­son says it’s im­por­tant for the girls to speak Sadri.

“They have this idea that there is a hi­er­ar­chy of lan­guages: English, Hindi and then Sadri. They’ll get em­bar­rassed to speak their own lan­guage. We talk about it quite a bit about how they should be proud of it and should speak their own lan­guage.”

Radha Ku­mari was taunted for play­ing foot­ball. “Why are you play­ing a boy’s sport?” her fam­ily would ask her. She, in­stead, was sup­posed to be do­ing her chores and graz­ing cat­tle.

Though she was 12, she had never at­tended school. Then she heard about Yuwa and the other girls at­tend­ing a tour­na­ment in Spain.

Radha, now 14, decided she should do the same thing. She joined the soc­cer group, trav­elled to Spain for a tour­na­ment and has now be­come a coach, teach­ing the younger girls drills and ex­er­cises and earn­ing money to at­tend school.

Older girls like Radha train to be­come coaches and earn money to pay for their ed­u­ca­tion, teach­ing them that they can be self-re­liant and earn their own money. She now dreams of be­com­ing a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer.

“When I see my world, when I look at na­ture, bridges, air­planes and I think about it, it’s so cre­ative and beau­ti­fully made and I want to do some­thing like that,” she says.

“I have a de­sire to learn some­thing new.” – AP

— Photos: AP

Even though they were taunted for play­ing foot­ball, these ru­ral In­dian girls per­sisted be­cause they wanted a chance to see the world.

Gastler (cen­tre) founded Yuwa, a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion that teaches girls foot­ball, which has opened up op­por­tu­ni­ties for them to chose a path other than early mar­riage.

Tak­ing part in foot­ball opens up op­tions for these girls, in­clud­ing stay­ing in school to fin­ish their ed­u­ca­tion.

Seem Ku­mari (back to camera) con­ducts a work­shop for younger stu­dents un­der the Yuwa project.

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