HUTUP, India (AP) — The 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 neighbourhood ahead of the early morning sunrise.
It’s 5am, and the 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 football balls.
They are heading to an immense empty field where they will hold their daily football 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, football — or football, as they call it — 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,” said 13-year-old Pratibha Kumari as she walks to her home after practice.
Pratibha was alluding to the biased views toward gender in India, particularly in rural areas like her village in Jharkhand. In India, 12 million adolescent girls — almost one in five — have experienced physical violence since the age of 15, and 2.6 million of girls aged 15-19 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 organisation teaching girls football. 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.”
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.
Around 300 girls participate in the Yuwa football programme and about 80 of those girls attend the Yuwa School for Girls, Gastler, said. The organisation, which has received a Nike Game Changers’ award, also hosts workshops to educate about health and life skills and parent meetings. Yuwa received more than $200,000 in monetary donations and grants and in-kind donations in 2016 from public and private sponsors, according to the organisation’s financial records.
Before the football drills start at the early morning practice, the girls laugh, cheer and gossip to each other. Here, on the football field, their backgrounds don’t define them. But as they share their stories, it’s 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 State 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 football.
“I feel very good because my sisters are supporting me,” she said.
Having changed out of their football shorts, cleats and striped socks, the girls arrive at the small cement school on the Yuwa campus in groups. Some arrive just as morning assembly starts, their hair still wet from washing it after practice.
An assembly features skits performed by some of the girls in the language of Sadri, one of several languages spoken in Jharkhand. The state is home to 32 indigenous tribes, each with its own unique culture. About one-quarter to one-third of the girls at Yuwa are indigenous, but most speak Sadri at home, said Rose Thomson, education director at Yuwa.
Though the school teaches English and Hindi, Thomson said it’s important for the girls to speak Sadri. “They have this idea that there is a hierarchy of languages: English, Hindi and then Sadri. They’ll get embarrassed to speak their own language. We talk about it quite a bit about how they should be proud of it and should speak their own language.”