Mon, Jun 19, 2017 - Page 11 News List

Indian girls fight discrimination with soccer

AP, HUTUP, India

Younger students of Yuwa, a non-profit organization teaching girls soccer, practice on June 8 in Ormanjhi in India’s Jharkhand State.

Photo: AP

An aging 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 neighborhood ahead of the early morning sunrise.

It is 5am, and 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 soccer balls.

They are heading to an immense empty field where they are to 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 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,” 13-year-old Pratibha Kumari said as she walked home after practice.

Pratibha was alluding to the biased views toward gender in India, particularly in rural areas like her village.

In India, 12 million adolescent girls — nearly one-fifth — have experienced physical violence since the age of 15, and 2.6 million of girls aged between 15 and 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,” said Franz Gastler, founder of Yuwa, a non-profit organization that teaches soccer to girls.

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,” Gastler said.

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.

About 300 girls participate in the Yuwa soccer program and about 80 of those girls attend the Yuwa School for Girls, Gastler said.

The organization, 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 last year received more than US$200,000 in monetary donations, grants and in-kind donations from public and private sponsors, according to its financial records.

Before the soccer drills start at the early morning practice, the girls laugh, cheer and gossip with each other. Here, on the soccer field, their backgrounds do not define them, but as they share their stories, it is 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 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 said, 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.

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