Chances are you might not have heard of Rukka and Hutu villages. Located in one of the most vulnerable tribal areas of Jharkhand, the villages are infamous for Naxalite violence and inter-caste warfare. Combined with the fact that 30,000 girls are trafficked from the state every year and more than six in 10 women can’t read make it one of the most lawless and least literate regions of India. But none of this deters a bunch of girls who are adamant on breaking stereotypes by battling severe odds. They use the only tool at their disposal with maximum force, which is helping them rewrite the scripts of their lives: football.
Sunita Kumari is the daughter of a farm labourer. The 17-year-old looks frail but she makes up for her lack of physical strength with an endless reservoir of grit.
“My neighbours used to taunt me, saying, ‘Ladki hai, half-pant pehen kar yahan vahan ghoomti hai (Why is a girl like you running around wearing just half-pants?)’ But I told my father, ‘Bahar vala sirf baat karega lekin tumko khane ko nahi dega (Let them say whatever they want. They aren’t going to feed you),” says Sunita, who has been playing as a defender for five years and also coaches the younger players. “Both my elder sisters dropped out of school and used to sit idle at home, so they were married off. My mother was always very supportive but she fell ill last year and died. Playing football has given me an alternative option to escape the drudgery of marriage and household chores. I want to be independent and provide the same choice to other girls by coaching them.”
Sunita has reasons to be worried. Nearly 58 percent of the girls in Jharkhand get hitched before attaining the age of 18. “Back home, they tell me that I will be married off soon, but I don’t want to get married before 21,” says Rinki, who is merely 14 and plays centre forward for the team. “My parents believe that village girls are fit only for domestic chores. Sometimes, I’m afraid that I will be weaned away from football. But I will strive to become a professional player. If not, then a doctor because I will be able to change their outlook only by proving myself.”
These girls have found a way to express their rebellion via football thanks to YUWA Foundation. The initiative was started by Franz Gastler, a 32-year-old American from Minnesota, who has made Jharkhand home. An ice-hockey player and ski coach, Gastler came to the state in 2008 to work with a local ngo and started teaching English in government schools during his free time.
“I never set out to create a great football club, but little by little we have become one,” says Gastler. “The girls care a great deal about the game and want to keep getting better.”
The team’s highlight came in Spain last year when the girls finished third at the Gasteiz Cup, the world’s foremost testing ground for teenage footballers.
“Now, the foundation’s work is referred to by means of ‘before and after Spain’. A lot of these girls have brought prestige to the community,” says Rose Thomson, the project coordinator for YUWA Foundation. “We have been told that the girls are being fed more and are being given more opportunities, almost on the same level as their brothers, which wasn’t the case before.”
But playing football and going to Spain did not come easy. “I was rebuked a lot before going to Spain,” recalls Rinki. “The neighbours had fed my parents stories and asked them not to allow me to go. I told my brother, ‘Just because you never got a chance to fly on a plane, why are you stopping us from doing so?”
Gastler adds, “These girls are very strong and have a lot of fortitude. They lead very physically and socially demanding lives and don’t even get to socialise with their friends. But once you open the door and give them a chance to play, they flock.
“We try our best to delay child marriage and send them back to school. The parents value very different things from us, like prestige. I think there can be a point of convergence where both parties can get what they want as long as what the girls enjoy doing helps bring some prestige to their families.”
Bikram Singh Thockchom, the chairman of Moonlight Sports Federation, is a football enthusiast who has coached thousands of children at football clinics, schools and workshops and is now leading the struggle for promoting women’s football in India. “I have found that these girls are perfect for most kinds of sport,” says Thockchom, who also works as a consultant coach for YUWA. “They have the drive, physique, flexibility and strength. If given the right input, they are undefeatable. Simply because they come from a rural background, they aren’t encouraged. You need good coaches, and more than that, you need institutions to develop these coaches, livelihood needs to be created and only then the football industry will flourish.”
Social concerns aren’t the only hurdles that these girls face. Villagers are angry at the girls’ defiance as a result of which they no longer have a ground to play on. The ground where they initially used to play has been turned into farmland and houses have sprung on the rest of it. It is best illustrated in the words of 14-year-old Renu, who is the goalkeeper of the YUWA team. “Just because they didn’t like us playing, they took over the ground. Now we have to play on the small stretches near our homes and are unable to practice together,” she says.
However, the media attention that the girls’ stunt at Spain has brought has now led to negotiations between YUWA and the state to release five acres for building a residential football academy.
While combating fewer opportunities, gender inequality and stereotypes that prevail in the rural set-up of Rukka, the Jharkhand girls are not alone. One is surprised to stumble upon a similar young bunch of girls rewriting the narrative in the heart of New Delhi.
As Sahiba Choudhary, Somi Rajput, Darakshan Ansari and Tehreem form a huddle to celebrate, it is impossible to guess the kind of struggle they have been through, looking at their ecstatic state. The reason for their joy is their stunning 2-0 win over an American team at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. They draw their strength from CEQUIN (Centre for Equity and Inclusion), which is a New Delhi-based non-profit organisation working for marginalised sections, with a special focus on women.
“We run a gender resource centre at Jamia Nagar in partnership with Jamia Milia Islamia university, where we train these girls. All these girls belong to the vulnerable sections or slum areas of Taimoor Nagar, Indira Camp, Khizrabad, Ishwar Nagar, Okhla Vihar and Batla House,” says Rizwan Ahmed Khan, the programme officer of CEQUIN. It’s the only women’s football team from the Muslim-majority area of Jamia Nagar. Even Jamia does not allow for a women’s football team due to which some of their students play for the CEQUIN team.
Somi Rajput, 17, is a short and spunky girl who has been playing for the team for more than two years. She fell in love with the beautiful game after watching Shaolin Soccer and now wants to become a professional player. However, financial constraints and her family’s conservative attitude stand in the way of her dream.
“My father was a grocer; he became an alcoholic and is now bed-ridden, and my mother is a nurse at Safdarjung Hospital,” she says. “I am the youngest of four sisters and have a younger brother. I give tuitions to earn a little money. Whenever I step out to play, the neighbours say, ‘Kya kar logi khel ke, karna to tumhe jhaadu-pocha hi hai? (What will you achieve by playing? After all, you will end up doing household chores).’ But today we won the match against the American girls and it’s a big achievement.”
While Somi’s hardships are reflected in the other girls’ accounts, a lot of them are facing hurdles because of religion. Meenu Chaudhary, the 25-year-old coach of the CEQUIN team, glances over her shoulder at the playing girls. “Almost all of them wear a hijab or burqa at home. They remove it once they enter the stadium and wear it again before going back home,” she says. “Their parents are not aware that their daughters play in shorts and T-shirts. They think that their girls are playing in hijabs. We want them to embrace this fact, but it isn’t easy.”
The girls are desperate for their family’s support, but they don’t want their parents to attend their matches for the fear of being stopped from playing football. “They are young and right now their only concern is to keep playing the game,” says Meenu. “Initially, they used to wear full-length lowers but once they started playing tournaments, we have given them shorts, which makes it easier for them to play. Some of the parents who support their daughters might be aware of it, though.”
YUWA and CEQUIN are just two of the many organisations in the country working towards women’s empowerment with the aid of football. They create engaging environments where girls can gain confidence and life skills that help them face any challenge. Rising Star Outreach (RSO) is a similar initiative and football is again the common factor.
“Ever since I started playing football, I have become more decisive,” says Theresa, 16, who is reaping the benefits of the RSO programme in Tamil Nadu. “I take more initiatives and am able to express myself better on the field.”
Theresa’s grandfather is one of the many leprosy-affected people in Chettipunniyam, a village near Chengalpattu town in Tamil Nadu, who receives regular aid from RSO, an organisation dedicated to the eradication of leprosy and the resulting stigma.
“Leprosy affects people in a multidimensional way, causing much agony and anguish,” says Dr Susan Hilton, the managing director of RSO. “Leprosy colonies are very dismal places. People suffering from the disease have no hope for themselves or their children. We give education grants to such children all over Tamil Nadu.”
The RSO’s education programme currently supports 241 students. Nearly 95 percent of them come from various leprosy colonies. Theresa is a Class X student who, along with 16 other girls from the institute, got a chance to learn football from an American team, which spent a week at the RSO campus in Kanchipuram, teaching football and engaging in confidence-building activities.
“Academics is seen as the only way to succeed for people with disabilities, but we encourage arts and sports on the same level as academics,” says Hilton.
The American team’s visit was part of the Goals for Girls initiative, which connects girls from different countries and backgrounds with their peers around the world in a forum that addresses social and health challenges through cultural exchange and football.
The Goals for Girls logo is a flower motif with football hexagons instead of petals, beneath which are the words: “She flies with her own wings.” Together, it conveys an easily understood message of using football as a medium for empowerment of girls across the world. Since 2007, the initiative has organised five international events in South Africa (twice), Uganda, Tajikistan and Peru. Their sixth international trip was to India in late December 2013.
The team comprised 17 players from Portland and Chapel Hill aged between 16 and 18, led by two-time Olympic gold medallist and World Cup winner Cindy Parlow Cone. “I have seen girls’ lives change before my eyes, whether it’s them falling in love with the game, building confidence or finding a voice to become leaders of their teams,” says Cone. “At Rising Star Outreach, we saw girls who had never touched a ball, falling in love with the sport, which was incredible. I truly believe that soccer can bring so much to a young girl’s life.”
Riley Foster, who plays for Triangle United in North Carolina, is a prime example of that transformation. Talking about the impact that football has brought to her life, the 17-year-old says, “There’s a lot of pressure in life but once you set foot on the soccer field, it disappears. My parents are divorced but my biggest challenge is that my mother is an alcoholic. The game gives you a sense of self-control and the strength to deal with challenges.”
For a week, the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium reverberated with cries of cheer and laughter while 250-odd girls played with an unusual zeal. The stadium served as a global platform where CEQUIN, YUWA and Goals for Girls came together for exhibition matches and football workshops. Along with his YUWA team of 23 girls, Gastler undertook a train journey of more than 48 hours from Jharkhand to New Delhi to play against the US team, which was sponsored by Anglian Football, a subsidiary of Anglian Management Group (AMG). AMG has investments in Danish Superliga club FC Vestsjælland and I-League club Shillong Lajong FC.
“We have taken it upon ourselves to promote women’s sports in the country, especially football,” says Kabir Mandrekar, business development manager of AMG. “Firstly, they have a lot of potential and scope. Secondly, while the Indian men’s football team is ranked in the 150s, the women’s team is ranked 50 internationally so they have a greater chance of participating in the World Cup. These girls are just waiting for an opportunity and given their talent, we are honestly sitting on a gold mine.”
Throwing light on the commercial scope of the game, Mandrekar further adds, “We are trying to build a structure through which corporates can invest in women’s football and be assured of good returns. It’s like educating various stakeholders about the profit and prominence of a rising sport. Why won’t they invest in Indian football then? Since it’s not been done before, corporates are a little hesitant to put big money into grassroots football. That’s where we come into the scene, to get the ball rolling. Someone will have to take the initiative, which I believe is exactly what we are doing.”
The future of Indian football in general and women’s football in particular is best reflected in Thockchom’s words. “I believe that football is more lucrative than cricket because the latter has reached its saturation point in terms of commercial gains,” he says. “Football in India is gradually building up. It’s a very interesting time because there is a grassroots revolution happening. If you know your audience, it isn’t very difficult to generate funds either. We simply lack the structure at the moment, which I am sure will fall into place very soon.”
As the popularity of women’s football gathers pace, initiatives such as YUWA, CEQUIN and RSO are creating a generation of confident, informed, proactive and resilient young girls through the kick of a ball. The journey isn’t an easy one but certainly one worth making.