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Why Shouldn’t Girls Play As Freely As Boys?

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This post is a part of Kaksha Crisis, a campaign supported by Malala Fund to demand for dialogue around the provisions in the New Education Policy 2020. Click here to find out more.

By Niyoshi Parekh

I remember really looking forward to P.E. class when I was in school. Not because I enjoyed playing sports, but because it was usually a ‘free period’ for girls. While the boys in our class quickly split off into teams and started playing football on the big ground, most girls hung around the swings and chatted for the entire hour. Even when the P.E. teacher did focus on us, he only made us do drill exercises. We were rarely taught or encouraged to play team sports.

In a recent report from 2020, BBC found that only 29% of Indian women play sports, while 42% of Indian men do, almost one and a half times greater than the women. Various societal norms and gender stereotypes still hold women back, and there is not enough understanding of the importance of sports for the development of young girls.

Girls playing netball in Bandra
Girls playing netball in Bandra

Moreover, girls living in urban slums are even more restricted and constrained from engaging in sports under the guise of being ‘protected’ in a seemingly dangerous neighbourhood where they are always subject to the unwanted male gaze. Playing a sport is also not typically considered a virtue for a good girl, and girls often bear this unfair burden.

Introducing sports for young girls from such orthodox backgrounds offers a dual benefit. On the one hand, playing a team sport instils confidence, builds interpersonal and communication skills, and supports the individual’s physical and mental well-being. It also encourages the dialogue for the availability of safe and open play spaces for children and young people, especially girls.

It allows children to demand more such spaces and access their right to play, such as what the Claiming Spaces campaign by young people and children facilitated by Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) has already done. To encourage the playing of sports to help youth build capacity, YUVA partnered with NAZ Foundation from November 2020 to March 2021 to teach netball to the girls of Behrampada, Bandra.

“जो लड़कियां बुरखा पहनती है वह ग्राउंड पे उतरती खेलने के लिए वही बड़ी बात है” (A girl who wears a burqa, if she steps out to the playground to play, that in itself is a big deal), said Taslim Khan, YUVA Facilitator, reflecting on the engagement.

Interacting with each other between the game
Interacting with each other between the game

The first obstacle was convincing parents to allow their daughters to play. The Colgate ground was only a 5-minute walk from Behrampada, but many girls were not even allowed to go to the ground, let alone play sports there. There were safety concerns as well as a belief that the ground was only for boys to play in.

The Behrampada community is a very densely populated basti (informal settlement). The habitations are ground plus four/five-storied, built with thin material like tin sheets, almost like a vertical slum. The community has very narrow lanes, with dim to no light facilities and poor ventilation. Some areas of the community are always in darkness, where no ray of sunlight even reaches.

The basti does not have any open spaces for children to play. Through a community meeting, YUVA and NAZ explained the importance of physical activity for girls, emphasising that the ground was for everyone to use and took responsibility for their safety.

For five months, 20 girls played at the ground twice a week, under the guidance of a coach from the NAZ Foundation. All of them were under the age of 15. The NAZ Foundation’s Goal programme empowers young underprivileged girls in India through sports. They focus on four main areas – personality development, health, rights and financial literacy.

Teaching and training occur simultaneously on the court. Zoya Siddiqui, a 14-year-old girl who participated in the programme, excitedly told me how loving and understanding the NAZ coaches were and how well they got along with all the girls. Nikhat, 12-years-old, also spoke fondly of her experience and expressed how strong the bond had become between them and the coach. They felt heard and cared for and were given a lot of support. They also received a certificate at the end of the programme, celebrating their success.

All smiles at the certificate distribution ceremony
All smiles at the certificate distribution ceremony

The programme changed the nature of the Colgate ground. It had always been a public space but had remained inaccessible to the community’s girls due to invisible barriers and restrictions. This initiative shows how it is not only important to create physically accessible spaces but also to make people feel like they belong there.

Even the boys who were initially hesitant to give up their playground for just two hours a week have come around, and now the boys and girls often play together. Jokingly, Zoya and Nikhat told me how the boys were now actually jealous that they weren’t being coached too and wanted to be treated ‘equally’. As the programme continued, there was a distinct change in the mindset of the girls and the community.

For example, Zoya and Nikhat relayed experiences of harassment that they faced while playing, with people commenting on their clothes and once even verbally abusing them. However, instead of responding with fear and leaving the space, the girls worked to assert themselves and their right to play safely on the ground.

They took a letter to the local Nirmal Nagar police station, asking for an officer to patrol the area while the girls played there. They received a positive response and were allowed to take a police officer along with them every time they went to play, as the station was on the way to the ground.

“मुझे उससे फ्रीडम मिली, और मैं अकेले बिना डरे जा सकती हु” (I experienced what freedom feels like, and now I can go there alone without fear), said Zoya. Now that the girls have tasted the freedom and joy that sports can bring, they want to continue playing. Their netball team name is Udaan, embodying their wishes to continue to soar.

They took the initiative to demand sports kits from their ward representatives and are looking forward to playing more comfortably with proper clothes, shoes, and caps soon. They hope to form a team that can represent Behrampada and benefit their community. Inspired by the impact on space, personality and community, YUVA aims to continue using sports to empower the young girls they work with.

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