Girls on Ground : Young girls of all ages learn to play football as part of ‘Girls on Ground’ project by SAFA India, while they too gain access to the playground, which until now was a boys domain, writes Rajeshwari Kalyanam
Darulshifa – one of the oldest areas of Hyderabad is historically significant with each heritage building telling a story. The famous football ground of the area too has many stories to tell. The former India football Captain Shabbir Ali’s career was launched from this ground. After his retirement he chose to train kids. It isn’t uncommon to see young boys play football in the bigger and smaller playgrounds in the area, and even in the gullies.
What is uncommon is however to see girls play in these grounds. The conservative community of Darulshifa has never imagined sending their girls to these grounds. The girls know about football as they watch their male siblings and other boys play; some even play near their houses inside their gates, but never in the open-air playgrounds.
Atleast not until a couple of months ago. As a part of SAFA India’s new project “Girls on Ground’, 75 girls of different age groups are receiving foundation training in football through professional coaches from January this year. ‘There will also be advanced coaching for those selected from this group based on their interest and commitment to the sport,’ shared the project team members, who were with the girls during one of the training sessions being held at a playground opposite SAFA office.
SAFA India is an NGO that works for empowerment of women from marginalized and economically backward communities. Their initiative – Luqma Kitchen Studio that helps disadvantaged women by training them and guiding them towards starting their own food business has been a news maker of sorts for its innovation and sustainable model. Luqma Kitchen and SAFA India office in Darulshifa overlook a small playground where young boys are seen playing every day.
A regular sight otherwise got SAFA India team thinking. They wondered if there is a way to encourage the girls to come and play in the ground.
The thought translated into ‘Girls on Ground’, a project created to encourage girls to occupy public playgrounds. What started off as ”free play time’ transformed into structured coaching plan. It was not easy to begin with. The Project Manager shares how he would go with flyers to various schools requesting the managements to distribute them, and they would face resistance. “Why don’t you coach the boys instead,” they would suggest. Most parents thought it was unsafe for girls to play in the playground that is usually considered male domain. Some worried that the girls would get hurt – ‘there were lot of questions.’ It needed a lot of convincing and awareness sessions; parents were counselled and their fear were addressed with convincing answers, and only then they started seeing girls register for the coaching. But in the end – some enrolled their children for fitness, few gave into their chidren’s wishes and there are mothers who wanted to see their girls play and aspire to become sportswomen. Out of the 110 girls – 75 were selected based on their interest to learn.
SAFA India had to take permissions from the municipal authorities to ensure that atleast for two hours the ground is closed for everyone else so that the girls can get to play without fear or disturbance. Professional coaches were brought in to train the girls of all ages, who arrive at the ground on time, eager to learn – their enthusiasm is infectious.
‘As soon as she comes home, she puts away her bag, changes dress and jumps into her shoes – doesn’t even stop to eat. All she wants to do is come to the ground to play football.” Fatima is unsure whether to be worried or happy with this new found interest of her elder daughter. She sits in one corner of the football ground to watch as both her daughters go through the training routine diligently. “They are playing well. I have only studied till 7th class. I was married off early and I couldn’t do much in my life. I hope my daughters get to do what they want and achieve something in life.”
“My mother-in-law was not so thrilled with me sending my daughter for football coaching. ‘They will make them do all kinds of exercises, what if they get hurt or break a bone’ – she keeps saying. But I want my kid to do what she likes. Even her father is keen that she plays. He even bought shoes for them,” another mother shares.
Nafisa – a nine-year-old says her mother wanted her to play in order to stay fit. 13-year-old Sana Fatima convinced her parents that she will balance her education with football as she badly wanted to play. Many of the girls saw their male siblings learn and play football. Some of them would even join them when they played in the confines of their houses. And, for them to play in the open and learn the game is a dream they never dared to foster. However, now that their world is opening up, they express their desire to continue to play and achieve something big.
Watching the girls of different heights in their hijabs going through their fitness routine in the dusty ground, dribbling between the posts, kicking the ball into the makeshift goals – it does feel like the purpose achieved for all those who are involved – the SAFA team, parents, and the girls themselves who are out there to make a difference.
The ‘Girls on Ground’ team hopes that the girls will continue to play and train, and say it is interesting to see them come to the ground regularly for the last two months. The struggle continues to keep the ground exclusive during prime playtime, and convince the authorities to extend the permission for more hours. It is also important to keep the girls and parents motivated enough to continue to come, and bring awareness in terms of nutrition and well being, and SAFA India is steadily making progress one step at a time.
As more and more girls participate and find representation in what is perceived as male domain – they coming to the playground to play is in itself a big win.