While it’s exciting to watch women do well in sports, the difficulties they face in building a career are still daunting.
One of the most heart-warming stories last month was that of the amazing group of young women from Jharkhand who danced a jig in their red and white saris as they collected their third prize in a football tournament in Spain. Few in India would have heard of this fixture. But thanks to the Yuwa India team of girls under 14 years of age, all from tribal villages near Ranchi, the Gasteiz Cup is known. So are the faces and the stories of some of these young girls who had to overcome incredible hurdles not just to learn to play the game but to travel to Spain to participate in the tournament.
Even as we applauded the Yuwa girls, another bunch of women under 19 years of age came home with a prize. This time it was the under-19 Indian women’s hockey team that brought back the bronze medal from the Junior Hockey World Cup in Germany. And, in China, another bronze medal came India’s way, with the victory of P.V. Sindhu in the badminton World Championships.
Yet do these victories presage a change of attitude towards women and sports in this country? Will there by many more Rinki Kumaris, the 13-year-old girl from a Jharkhand tribal village who is captain of the Yuwa India team? Or is this an exceptional story that is not likely to be repeated?
While there have been several women who have excelled in individual sports, such as Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom and Sania Mirza, it is particularly gratifying that women are doing well in team sports, especially in a game like football. In my growing up years, if girls wanted to play football, they were deflected to hockey; if they wanted to play basketball, they were asked to play netball; if they preferred volleyball, they were told throw-ball was more suitable and if they liked cricket, they were advised that “Rounders” (a British game that resembles American baseball in a vague sort of way) was the appropriate game for girls.
Fortunately, girls today are not being forced into such choices and you can see them playing hockey and football, as well as basketball and volleyball and, of course, cricket. And Rounders has probably vanished from the list of team sports considered “suitable” for girls as have the exam papers printed on blue paper that were sent by sea mail from the University of Cambridge for the school-leaving examination!
Yet, the world of sports for Indian women remains one of exceptions. The number of successes is increasing each year. But the difficulties that girls and young women face if they want to build a career in sports are still daunting. These include familial and societal attitudes towards women taking part in sports. When girls are young, playing games is tolerated. Once they reach puberty, they are actively discouraged, even if they show exceptional talent. If they overcome all this and still manage to find their way into a team at the school, university, state or national level or in individual sports, the story does not end. The quality of coaching, the kind of facilities available, the travel arrangements for tournaments, the shoddy accommodation at venues and the lack of security are only some of the more obvious problems.
In addition, women in particular are confronted with the unpleasant reality of sexual harassment. The few studies on this subject indicate that this is a major downer for women. We know of the tragic case of young Ruchika Girhotra, an aspiring tennis player, who committed suicide as a result of sexual harassment. For every such story that is known, there are likely to be many more that never surface and where the sportswoman quietly withdraws.
Women in sports need not just more visibility in the media, but their problems must be tackled at many different levels. For instance, there is a huge shortage of women coaches and sports managers. Why are women not encouraged to pursue a career in sports management, or as coaches, or as referees, or as sports psychologists? If more teams like Yuwa India and the under-19 women’s hockey team keep winning, they will need more coaches and managers. And there is no reason why women should not do this job.
It is also evident that women born in poverty face special challenges. They are hands needed to work in the home and outside. If their parents fail to understand why they want to be out in a field kicking a ball, it is understandable. The only way such girls can play is if they are provided encouragement in the form of scholarships and jobs. Many young people have succeeded in getting out of poverty by excelling in a sport. But there needs to be much more of this rather than a one-off intervention like that of the idealistic young American, Franz Gastler who decided to train adolescent tribal girls to play football in Jharkhand. Such interventions need to be an integral part of the educational system.
So let’s raise two cheers for these wonderful young women who are bringing back medals but save the last cheer for the day when we see real and substantial changes in the arena of women and sports in India.