When I turned five years old I was given a bicycle. My sister taught me how to ride. She rode beside me for an hour, everyday, till I learnt to ride the red Avon bicycle twice my size. A few years later when we shifted to a colony in Patna, my cycle was given to a boy who needed it to go to school.
In the new colony, for recreation groups of girls simply got together and chatted in the evenings. One day I proposed ‘pitto’; we were eight of us good enough for two teams. A ball was bought, stones collected and the game began. The gully, perhaps for the first time,was filled with peals of laughter of girls and shouts of victory. The game caught on, every evening at 5, it was the same. For a couple of days that is.
Then one of the oldest women in the neighbourhood visited our families to complain —“choti choti baah ka top aur skirt pahin ke sab daudti rehti hai…bahut laaj lagta hai…mere ghar ke mehman naraz hokar chale gaye”. In short, what offended her and her guests was the fact that young girls were playing with aplomb and enjoying themselves, as all children should.
That was the day, it hit me that girls were not supposed to shout, laugh, or run around, especially in front of others (boys and men). We were stopped from playing. Our freedom was snatched from us. Most girls never played again.
This isn’t a one-off incident, most girls face similar situation. The archaic social norms, that women and girls are expected to conform to, are extremely restrictive, and negatively impacts their mobility, confidence, opportunities and aspirations. Sexual harassment and eve teasing from boys and men further restricts their mobility. Girls and women are seldom allowed outside their homes or in public spaces without the supervision of their families.
LET’S THINK TEAMS
We need to break this cycle and so move from ‘groups’ to ‘teams’. Along with our local partners, we encouraged young girls to play. Over the years, sports as a tool to empower women and girls emerged organically within the programme.
Bihar doesn’t have a popular sporting culture, unlike Jharkhand or Haryana. So it required more time for us to convince the young girls and the community of a sport-based approach. By playing, and not just in their courtyards but in teams in a playground, these young girls broke the age old barriers. Barriers that held them back from developing a personality of their own.
Pratima Kumari, the founder of Gaurav Grameen Mahila Vikas Manch (GGMVM) in Bihar explains, “Playing sport and running around freely has been extremely liberating for girls who have largely been victims of patriarchy. It has in fact, empowered them to negotiate with their families.
A girl once cross-questioned her father on his disapproval of her participation in sports. ‘There is a risk even on the road we walk, does anyone take the responsibility for that?’ she had asked."
Nisha Kumari Gupta, a 19-year old from Patna District who is part of GGMVM’s football programme, said that owning and wearing a jersey for her was symbolic. As an individual and as a team, it gave her a lot of self-belief, a sense of pride and an identity within the community. Others too speak of gaining confidence and higher self-esteem.
Sports provided them with a platform and an opportunity to speak out about their rights, challenging the issues and social norms surrounding them in society. Sister Sudha Varghese, while recounting the impact she had seen in the girls in the Nari Gunjan programme, observed that girls were no longer shy, they were confident, and vocal. Sports had brought out the inherent qualities which is often subdued in girls, even at home.
Moreover, the fact that several girls have had to convince their families on a regular basis for the permission to play sport, has given them the ability to negotiate and find solutions in all aspects of their lives. It has become a skill that they can utilise when tackling gender norms and injustice in their everyday lives.
STILL A LOT TO DO
While there is significant impact of sports-based programmes, they are at a very nascent stage and yet to provide evidence of long-term impact. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that these programmes can be key to achieving deeper changes in the communities. By building the agency of girls and women and tackling restrictive social norms, there can be a lasting impact on larger societal issues of child marriage, trafficking, and gender-based violence.
During pandemic, all schools and colleges were closed and the limited spaces that young girls had acquired for themselves were taken away. They were confined to the four walls and expected to do household chores. In Sitamarhi, we supported 10 teams with football kits and a coach to train them; we took permission from the schools to use the playground and provided them with safety kits. The girls got a chance to meet up and express themselves.
This socio-psycho support was useful in warding off the negativity and anxiety caused due to the lockdown. The girls sincerely followed the safety guidelines and gave their fullest to the sport. In fact, one of the teams was selected to represent the district at the state level.
In Bihar, however, the support offered by the government for sports does not inspire much confidence. Seeing the impact sports has on youth, we can only hope that government schemes such as job quotas or sports hostels for talented individuals can be taken forward so that young people and their families can see a future in sport. Let’s take this pledge on International Day of Sports for Development and Peace, today (April 6).
(Sushmita Goswami works at Oxfam India as the programme officer with Gender Justice team in Bihar. Views are personal.)