This post originally appeared on Video Volunteers, an award-winning international community media organization based in India. An edited version is published below as part of a content-sharing agreement.
Poonam is a teenager from Varanasi, a city in the Uttar Pradesh State of North India. She used to believe firmly that girls should stay at home and eventually get married. “Today, I feel that girls should have full freedom,” she says. What changed for Poonam? In a word: sports. She and a bunch of girls in her community learned to play ball.
Rekha Chauhan is the project director of Mahila Swarojgar Samiti (MSS), an organization that helps teenage girls in Varanasi shape their identity and be more confident about their sexuality through football. Rekha says:
When these girls play, they play very freely: they don’t care if anyone is staring at them, their breasts. It’s an expression of complete freedom as if they are flying in the playground!
Systemic gender discrimination means that adolescent girls face challenges on multiple fronts. Secondary-school dropout rates among adolescent girls are much higher than boys. Teenage pregnancy and marriage also pose serious risks, and more adolescent girls are also malnourished and underweight than adolescent boys. More than half of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are anaemic in India.
Coupled with these obstacles are the country's crippling social restrictions on women's mobility and freedom.
Playing sports can often be seen as a masculine activity, and women who challenge this often face societal censure. Even when families are supportive, institutional neglect often forces young girls from poorer families to give on dreams of becoming star athletes. But breakout successes, like Kashmir's eight-year-old gold-medalist kickboxer Tajamul Islam, can be enormously inspiring to young girls.
MSS’ programme is trying to facilitate more of this, building a space where girls take up sports and encourage other girls to do the same.
MSS has created 25 groups of girls that meet regularly to discuss gender, patriarchy, sexuality, and reproductive health. And to play football, of course! Each group has 20 teens from economically marginalised families in Varanasi.
Neha works at MSS and oversees this programme. She says she's seen with her own eyes how football makes the girls more confident:
It energises their whole body and boosts health and also plays a crucial role in shaping their sexuality.
Initially, the girls themselves along with their parents questioned the decision to teach them football. Rekha Bharati is one such teenager:
I had never even seen a football before in my life! I want to change my parent’s perspective so that they stop differentiating between sons and daughters.
Three-quarters of the girls in these groups attend school. As many as five are already married. All the girls come from Dalit or Muslim communities. Since joining the group, some of the girls say they've been able to take concrete steps toward changing their families’ attitudes. Several have also been able to negotiate their way out of teenage marriages — quite a feat in poor communities, even though pre-adult marriage is technically illegal in India.
Rekha says she knows how something as seemingly innocuous as football makes big social changes possible: “Football has remained an unchallenged male domain. When [girls] succeed in a supposedly ‘male’ domain, their confidence grows. They see that they are capable of what was a taboo for them and are eager to break down other restrictions,” she says.
Indeed, research from across the world confirms that playing team sports is an effective means of boosting self-esteem in adolescent girls, particularly those from marginalised backgrounds. Groups like MSS hope they are showing the way forward for communities across the country.