India’s girls, not just boys, deserve a sporting chance

by Madhumita Das
Monday, 6 April 2015 18:34 GMT

A girl practises a Mallakhamb pose while suspended from a rope at the Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir in Mumbai on October 19, 2012. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

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As we celebrate the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace on April 6, we are working to build a world where a girl’s ability to play sports does not depend on where she lives.

Across the United States, many girls grow up playing – and loving – sports, which can have a profound impact on their lives. And it makes sense. We know that sports build up children’s confidence and can play a vital role in a child’s development.

In India, however, too often those opportunities are only afforded to boys. After puberty, girls are typically restricted from certain activities, including sports. In the slum communities that dot Mumbai, the country’s financial capital, girls are rarely encouraged to play indoor or outdoor sports – often as a result of deeply rooted discriminatory beliefs that permeate communities.

Girls face myriad challenges that prevent them from playing sports, including the burden of household work that keeps them inside and the belief that sports don’t yield any health benefits for girls. What’s more, navigating the narrow, over-crowded streets of Mumbai’s slums often subjects girls to violence and sexual harassment, yet another reason parents prefer to keep their girls inside.

These barriers are not just problematic for girls; they’re problematic for the development of their communities.

Over the past decade research has shown that sports provide a platform to achieve broad development goals. Beyond the well-documented health benefits, playing sports can also have a big impact on educational attainment and personal growth, including self-esteem and self-confidence. Sports can expand boys’ and girls’ social networks and increase girls’ presence in public spaces, which are often reserved for men and boys.

When girls are left out, communities can’t overcome some of the biggest problems they face, including rampant discrimination and even violence.

Recognizing that excluding girls from the opportunity to play sports is not only inhibiting their ability to grow as individuals, but is also hindering the social and economic development of Mumbai’s slum communities, the International Center for Research on Women is helping create change for girls.

As we celebrate the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace on April 6, we are working to build a world where a girl’s ability to play sports does not depend on where she lives. We believe every girl should be able to play sports, which not only empowers girls, but also helps give girls the tools to build a better future.

A new program, called Parivartan: Change at Play, is doing just that. By teaching young women to play kabaddi, a popular Indian sport that is part wrestling, part acrobatics, and requires full body contact, girls learn how to work through difficult issues, build confidence in themselves, and challenge discriminatory beliefs that have held women and girls back in Mumbai’s slum communities for far too long.

Woven in between kabaddi practice, young women will also work in a group-setting to reflect on cultural and community norms that perpetuate discrimination, and will discuss the benefits of playing sports for health. These workshops will help create new norms around women’s and girls’ presence in public spaces, encourage higher aspirations for girls' education and for their professional careers, and help them gain the confidence necessary to communicate their desires and dreams to their parents.

Building on what they’ve learned, each young woman will then, in turn, mentor a group of 15 adolescent girls, who will go through the same training, designed to instill confidence and a sense of camaraderie.

With the Parivartan program, we’re helping girls to gain the necessary skills to tear down the barriers they face. And we’re not stopping there. As part of the program, we’re working with parents and members of the broader community to ensure that they understand how vital sports are for girls and that, like boys, girls should be given the freedom to play with their friends.

We’re making sure that the lessons learned today won’t be lost tomorrow and building bridges that will help girls play sports, be empowered, and transform their communities for decades to come.

-- Madhumita Das, senior technical specialist on men and masculinity, works in Mumbai for the International Center for Research on Women