Tackling gender inequality through soccer in India

In Rajasthan, India, early marriage persists despite having been outlawed more than a decade ago. But a girls’ soccer initiative has helped child brides gain the confidence to fight for their rights and overcome community pressure to pursue their own goals.

Arun Sankar K./AP
An Indian girl practices with a ball in front of a mural of India’s former soccer captain Baichung Bhutia in Chennai, India, June 4, 2014. A soccer program started four years ago by nonprofit Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti aims to fight child marriage.

When India began lifting its coronavirus lockdown, Meera, a child bride from northwestern India, was focused on just one thing: when she could start playing football again.

In Rajasthan, one of the Indian regions where early marriage persists despite having been outlawed more than a decade ago, a girls’ soccer initiative is tackling gender inequality, and giving child brides the confidence to fight for their rights.

“The day I was married, I was supposed to go to my first football camp. I protested, but my father didn’t listen to me,” the soccer-crazy 15-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

“I’m more assertive now. I’m no longer shy. I started playing again about a month ago. ... The question of me leaving does not arise,” said Meera, who was married three years ago in a mass wedding along with her two sisters.

In keeping with the usual practice for girls married early in Rajasthan, most child brides do not have their ‘gauna’ – the ritual sending off to live with their husband and in-laws – until they turn 18, the legal marriage age in India.

But as the coronavirus pandemic closed schools and deepened rural hardship in one of the world’s worst-hit countries, Meera feared the ‘gauna’ might come early for girls in her village.

UNICEF data from 2018 found that about 27% of girls in India get married before they turn 18, down from 47% a decade earlier, but advocates have warned that the COVID-19 crisis could lead to a spike in child marriage and put paid to recent progress.

Of 223 million women and girls in India who were married off as children, almost half were wed before turning 15, according to statistics by the United Nations’ children’s agency UNICEF.

Broadening horizons and seeing the world

Meera and her teammates got their first taste of the Beautiful Game thanks to a program launched four years ago by the nonprofit Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti (MJAS), which aimed to fight child marriage and help girls achieve their dreams.

It focuses on four villages in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan where early marriage is common.

When Indira Pancholi, founder of MJAS and joint head of the Girls Not Brides Rajasthan Alliance, got funding for a sport-based initiative, she went out to ask girls which was their favorite game, only to find most had never played anything.

But in the end, they opted for soccer.

“We didn’t know why they chose football, but realized from their conversations that they wanted to run in an open ground,” Ms. Pancholi said.

More than a quarter of the 170 girls who belong to Meera’s team were also married as children or engaged to be married.

When the coronavirus lockdown brought India to a virtual standstill in March, Sudhir Joseph, joint secretary at the Rajasthan Football Association, which coaches the girls, said he worried that many of them would give up.

“I was scared they would drop out. ... But they are still interested,” he said, adding that the game had boosted the girls’ confidence and broadened their horizons by allowing them to travel for games.

“Football took them out of their homes. ... they have seen the world outside their villages,” he said.

When Rashi, 17, returned from her first football camp wearing shorts and a T-shirt and not the wide skirt, blouse, and long scarf that she had set off in, her parents reacted angrily.

“The villagers protested and said the campaigners were sullying us by making us play a boys’ game. Even girls who were not playing would say we were sullied,” said Rashi, who was married two years ago and declined to give her real name.

Determined not to be cowed, they started wearing leggings under their shorts.

Little by little, parents and neighbors began to accept the football-playing girls as they brought trophies home from local tournaments or matches in big cities.

“We live in a remote village, so we had no idea what this [girls playing football] was. ... we couldn’t trust the girls going out on their own,” said Ramlal Bhadana, a member of Hasiyawas village council in Rajasthan.

“But the girls never missed a day of practice, even now. ... and they started doing well in studies. Five girls from our village are studying in college,” he said.

‘The courage to speak up’

Ms. Pancholi said football had turned out to be a “great strategy,” highlighting the success of convincing the girls’ families to let them take part in week-long camps.

The camps were liberating, Meera said, recalling how they allowed her to improve her technique and strategy on the pitch while also learning about child marriage laws, career options, and meeting legal officials from her home district.

Meera, who wants to train to become a football coach when she finishes school, spent some of her free time during lockdown visiting local families to encourage them to send their daughters to play. She said much still needs to be done.

“I want them to have the courage to speak up and not get trapped in marriage,” she said.

“Besides, if more of us step out, it would become normal for the villagers to see girls playing.”

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.