Girls in rural Jharkhand are choosing their futures through football


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It was 5 PM when a bus sleepily sauntered through the empty roads of Hutup, a village a half-an-hour auto ride from the famed BIT Mesra in Jharkhand. There is just one pukka road leading in and out of this place, and that is the route this bus would take. Its destination was fixed. We would be going to Barwe- a neighbouring village in Jharkhand’s Ormanjhi tehsil.

Throughout the forty-minute journey, the giant bus made several stops as it snaked through alternates of civilisation and emptiness. And with each stop, the number of people destined for Barwe increased. Immediately after getting on and spotting the already sitting members of this unlikely party, the newcomers, all girls belonging to different tribes in Jharkhand, beamed. They placed a few people from Europe and proceeded to wish them hello in three different languages. Then they spotted us, girls from the same country as them and smiled warmly. They each looked resolved- as if hiding a secret strength that they alone knew how to wield.

Eventually, the quintessentially red soil of Jharkhand’s villages became the only sight for as far as the eyes could see. And a designated field, just like the ones around it came to view. This was their battleground. This is what they lived for. And as we walked towards it, a jolly dog joined our party. “Draco Malfoy!” shouted some of the girls excitedly. This was evidently his name as he skipped over within seconds to anyone who was willing to pet him. Harry Potter and its characters follow me everywhere, I smiled.

The occupants of the bus, however, would not be distracted for long. They had a different goal in mind- and two goalposts on two opposite ends of the field to help them achieve it.

After all, every single person who got on that bus had one thing in common- their lives had been saved because they decided to start playing football. Everything had changed for the better since.

This is a story that deserves a voice- but a voice that just belongs to them. It is vital that we understand the exact backgrounds of the protagonists of our story- to perfectly grasp the stark difference that their life now holds.

This is the story of Jharkhand’s Yuwa school, of the lives it has changed and of the dreams it harbours. The Bridge spent two days with them. And now, we’ll let the school speak their story.

Sita, 22-year old student and footballer

…and this is my story.

“After my father died from alcoholism and severe liver damage, my mother and siblings experienced poverty from really close quarters. Sometimes, we would run out of food, other days we did not even have salt at our home. My mother is a very wise woman but because she chose to live alone and work away from the house she was often labelled characterless and a lot of other names.

I am also a survivor. When I grew a little older, there was a man who lived in the house beside us who forced himself on me. I was quite young at the time and surrounded by ignorant people like I had been all my life and so, never spoke about it.

My day started with household chores. Back then I went to an ill-maintained public school where all classes were held in a single room sometimes with a single teacher teaching every student. Theoretically, I was getting an education. I returned in the evenings to go back to more chores. I used to look forward to weekends when I could go swimming in the streams nearby. My mother kept working through all this.

When I was five my mother suffered a chronic pain that led to her being bedridden for the next five years. My two eldest siblings then went to work on construction sites just so we would have enough money because my mother was the only earning member of our family. A couple of years later, I started going out to work in neighbours’ houses.

This is what my life was before Yuwa finally found me. My story is not an isolated one. Most of the girls you find here have been victims of violence and abuse at some point in their lives before they came to Yuwa. But here, I can say that this is a safe space for me. Before coming here, I never felt comfortable talking about issues like poverty or sexual harassment.

Yuwa gave me the opportunity to play football and know football. I play in central-defence and my favourite player is Danny Batth. When I joined, I used to be very shy. I never spoke much even with my teammates because they were not from the same area as I was.

The first thing I learnt here was to speak up without hesitation. The rest just followed.”

The first impressions upon entering Yuwa’s school building is probably nothing short of unexpected. There’s graffiti covering every square inch of the walls of a two-storeyed building that schools 94 students ranging up to Std 11. These girls are a part of the indigenous population of one of India’s poorest states. The last thing one expects to see here is a 15-year old quoting Shakespeare perfectly or an Std 9 student working on a leaf chromatography experiment. But for Yuwa, education and the sport go hand in hand.

Bright, happy classrooms, a library with whole shelves dedicated to Enid Blyton and the rest housing numerous volumes of course and fiction titles donated by several well-wishers, dogs- each named after literary figures with their own unique quirks, and a complete hands-on experience of what the world around holds- this is the kind of wholesome environment that these girls are being nurtured in. They have dreams of studying abroad and preparing for exams like the TOEFL and the IELTS. At this point, they know the endless possibilities that lie ahead of them.

What’s even more amazing is that this little school in remote Jharkhand- a state that most Indians have probably never heard of, even has someone close to a guidance counsellor.

Maya Randolf, Facilitating the Life Skills Workshop

“I’ve been working with Yuwa since September 2018, and majorly, I am here to create a sort of curriculum for the life skills workshop that the girls here are a part of. The life skills is a part of the three-tier program that Yuwa has created as a way to empower the girls. So, along with football and their education- we educate the girls on social issues, civic engagement and mental health. Usually, the families that the girls are from have very little understanding of these things despite battling important issues on a daily basis- probably a lot more than we do.

We teach them about communication skills, good touch-bad touch, recognising bad intentions and essentially preparing them for lives as adults in the 21st century. We teach them limits and what’s appropriate for adults interacting with them. It’s quite sad actually if you think about it because their background has normalised a lot of things for them that should never be normal.

Not only do the girls get workshops taught to them, we even train them to lead workshops- work on their presentation skills, teach them to open up and draw from experience. It’s interesting seeing a few students who may really be shy in class get empowered and actually taking the stage to talk and hold the attention of a room with topics like menstrual hygiene or depression. It’s amazing to see them transform.

These girls range from the ages of 8-17, and whatever they learn, they take back to their own communities.”

Beginning in 2009, the school started with 45 students who have since increased to 94. Apart from football training, training for girls to become football coaches is carried on simultaneously with 41 girls enrolled in the program. In a state with meager literacy rates, this is yet another avenue opened up for the girls who might choose to sustain themselves in the world of sports. Additionally, more than 400 players are trained while simultaneously a school is run. And throughout their journey, they have achieved significant milestones.

In 2013, a team of girls from Yuwa were selected, as Sita put it to us, on the basis of their “attitude, caring nature, hard work, attendance, skill and potential” were sent to Spain to play in the Gasteiz Cup. Out of the ten U14 Girls teams, the fighters from Jharkhand secured the third place. This was the first time any of them had ventured outside their immediate surroundings.

In 2017, a group of eight girls and two boys had the opportunity to once again travel to Spain and participate in a two-week UEFA 2017- Level 1 training program conducted by La Liga club Real Sociedad.

If one visits the website of this NGO, one is introduced to the team that was actually behind setting up this NGO. One also realises the myriad of social issues that plague the students of this one of a kind school. From being victims of child trafficking and child marriage to the already mentioned plagues of assault and domestic violence, Yuwa is the place that heals them.

And a co-founder of the NGO explains the philosophy behind his work.

Franz Gastler, Co-founder Yuwa

“We started Yuwa in 2009, and I was one of the four co-founders, and now I’m the only one actually here in India working closely with the initiative- I look after the registration and fund-raising of it mostly at the moment.

What we do here in Yuwa is basically bring up football as a legitimate platform so that girls know that they have the option of taking their future into their own hands. I grew up in Edina, Minnesota but soccer is not something that I play too much of.

When I began work here, it was as a part of a Rural Development program. In 2009, I asked my first batch of students whether they would be interested in playing a sport and if so, what sport. Almost unanimously, the answer was football or soccer. And thus started the journey- almost a decade back.

Football provides a safe space for a lot of the girls here- a kind of respite for them. It provides them with confidence, lasting camaraderie and teaches them leadership skills. They work together, they train together, they score goals together- they know how to be there for each other.

We employed a local coach here and very soon, more and more girls started joining in when word about the Academy got out. Right now, the number of players we coach is close to 400 while 41 senior girls are being trained as coaches so they may in turn train those younger to them

So far, we have been successful in bringing girls together and convincing them that they deserve a chance, A lot of the girls keep marvelling on how much they’ve opened up and how many friends they’ve made since they started out here.

Football for these girls is a counter-culture where it’s cool to be an ambitious girl as opposed to the conservative society that they had become used to. Additionally, when you train girls to also be coaches, they learn how to guide others who possibly could be just like them before they came here. Basically, football is a medium of social development and getting girls back into school. Jharkhand ranks 32nd amongst the 36 states and union territories in India in terms of literacy rate. The state of Jharkhand ranks 27 of 30 for ‘female vulnerability’ in India. Only 50% of school-aged girls attend school.

5 out of 10 girls here drop out of school and are forced into marriage.

But not these girls. We try to do better, and we shall carry on trying.”

An oasis in an underdeveloped land in a country still finding its bearings in the world- I left the place with a promise to return again soon.

The world has some stories that deserve a voice. The amazing story of the girls of Yuwa is definitely one of them.