Ajmer, India – In a small football ground outside a remote village in India’s Rajasthan state, dozens of girls are busy practising, with shouts for passes ringing out as the sun set behind the small hills.
It was unheard of that girls from Hasiyawas and neighbouring villages in Ajmer district, about 400km (248 miles) from India’s capital, New Delhi, would play outdoor sports. The region is known for widespread child marriages and its lack of public space for women.
According to UNICEF, there are 223 million child brides in India, with nearly 15 million of them in the western state of Rajasthan.
Now, an initiative by a local NGO is using football to help girls from Ajmer overcome social taboos and give them a chance to strive for their dreams.
The Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti (MJAS), which loosely translates to Women’s Rights Committee, introduced football to female pupils in four villages in Ajmer district with the aim of empowering them. Since 2016, the Football for Girls programme has trained more than 400 girls in the four villages.
“We wanted to use sports and particularly football because it is considered a man’s sport, to break the gender barrier,” Indira Pancholi of MJAS told Al Jazeera.
“Football clubs have also helped us curb child marriage in these communities because girls became aware of their rights through our workshops. Earlier, they would have just went along if their parents tried to marry them but not now, they have the strength to say no.”
While girls are married off as children, they are sent to the husband’s house – in a ritual known as “gauna” – only when they reach the legal age for marriage, which is 18 for women and 21 for men.
According to government data, at least half of all child marriages in Ajmer took place in its villages.
About 30km (18 miles) from Ajmer, in Hasiyawas village, Mamata Gujjar, 16, recalls how it was tough to convince her parents to let her play football. “My father refused, saying it is a boy’s game, and he won’t let me wear shorts. I said, ‘All right, let me play in salwar kameez [a long tunic-like shirt and baggy trousers] then’,” Mamata told Al Jazeera.
Hasiyawas is a small village of about 150 families, most of them belonging to the Gujjar community, an agricultural and pastoral community with poor socio-economic conditions. The village is also home to a few Dalit families, who are at the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy, once known as “untouchables”. Football, a contact sport, is now helping to bridge age-old social distancing among various caste groups.
After the match was over, 18-year old Suman Gujjar from Hasiyawas told Al Jazeera that, “earlier Dalits, especially women, were not allowed to sit in front of Gujjars, if they did sit, it was on the floor. Till I joined the football club I too thought that we were of ‘higher birth’ and Dalits were unclean and ‘lower’. I have realised how wrong I was because of the workshops I attended during training.” This year, Suman is among a handful of girls to gain entrance to college and will pursue humanities at a government college in Ajmer.
Nisha Parihar, who joined the football club in nearby Chachiyawas village four years ago, says the boys of her village objected to girls playing football and tried to disrupt their matches and pass offensive comments.
“They would puncture the ball, occupy the ground and refuse to make space for us to play. We had to fight them off sometimes. Finally, we complained to the village council who then asked boys to play at a separate time,” the 13-year-old said, with a smile which seemed to reflect pride.
Sapna, 17, the captain of the team, echoed her friend’s sentiments. “Till we started playing, boys were never seen in the sports field. Just to prevent us from playing, they too started coming to the field,” she said evoking giggles from other girls.
Before football entered their lives, like most girls in rural Rajasthan and many other states of India, their daily routine was restricted to cooking, cleaning, milking cattle and other housework.
“We are mostly at home doing household chores and sometimes watch TV. But boys are free to stay out and go wherever they want. We didn’t have the courage to even ask our parents to let us go to play. We couldn’t think we could do things boys do,” said Monica Gujjar, a striker from Hasiyawas.
In Meeno ka Naya Gaon village, 130 kilometres (80 miles) from Hasiyawas, the girls’ football club has not resumed playing because the wild grass remains uncut in the ground of the local government school.
A remote village about 50 kilometres from the nearest town, Kekri, Meeno Ka Naya Gaon is inhabited largely by Meenas, who are recognised officially as an Indigenous people. Most of its residents are farmers or work as drivers and labourers in cities.
In the beginning, even some local teachers from the government school opposed girls playing football. “Once, when I had to go for the annual training camp my class teacher told me sports was bad for my studies and threatened me with termination from the school. I went anyway because my parents supported me and said they will enrol me in a different school if needed,” Geetu Meena, who is 15, told Al Jazeera.
The teacher, Radheshyam Pali, defended himself. “We were concerned about their studies. Now girls have shown they can do well in both sports and studies.”
The girls could not practise for six months as they were confined to their homes due to the coronavirus lockdown imposed in March. The only time they ventured out was to do chores such as fetching water, grazing cattle and picking firewood for mud stoves.
Their daily football practice resumed only two weeks ago on August 28, and they are eager to return to pre-lockdown fitness levels.
Dhuniya Meghwal, shy, with thick kohl-lined eyes, who plays as a forward, had been sitting quietly, but after being encouraged by others, said football had given her the freedom to make friends and mingle with others in the village.
Belonging to a Dalit caste, her family has survived by doing tasks that others in the village would not do, such as collecting garbage and cleaning sewers. “I was told I am unclean because I take care of others’ trash. Because of playing together, girls from other communities have become my friends, which was unthinkable earlier.”
Rajasthan state has seen violence based on caste. A stronghold of Rajput kingdoms during the medieval era, it has kept the remnants of feudalism with communities such as Dalits, Gujjars and Meenas placed at the lower end of the rigid hierarchy.
Violence based on caste constituted nearly 38 percent of all crimes recorded in the state in 2018, according to government data.
According to Padma Joshi, an Ajmer-based social worker, “there has been a gradual reduction in caste and gender-based discrimination”.
“Earlier, a woman from a Dalit caste had a sub-human existence as she was doubly disadvantaged. But with education, growing awareness and by encouraging girls to realise their rights, things have improved. Initiatives like Football for Girls do aid this positive change”, she told Al Jazeera.
Every year, girls from four villages, Hasiyawas, Chachiyawas, Meeno ka Naya Gaon and Sankariya, are taken to two training camps at the elite residential Mayo College in Ajmer city.
Several girls from these villages have also travelled to cities like Noida and Lucknow in northern Uttar Pradesh and the Indian capital to take part in tournaments.
Last year, the team comprising the best players from these villages stood first in the U-19 HCL Foundation’s Sports for Change tournament in which 12 teams participated from northern India. The same year, they won the U-19 Achievers’ Trophy in Lucknow, in which teams from eight states took part.
“We travelled so far and saw what a city looks like, with so many cars and huge buildings. I want to keep playing also because it allows to see different places”, says Suman, who played in both tournaments.
Earlier this year, four of the girls were selected for trials to play in the 2020 under-17 FIFA World Cup, which was due to be hosted by India, but could not attend the trials due to the pandemic. At more than six million infections and 100,000 deaths, India is the second worst hit country by COVID-19.
In nearly all cases, the girls were the first female members to travel without a male guardian. As there are no female coaches in Ajmer, the NGO MJAS invites coaches from other cities to train the girls at the two annual camps held at Mayo College. It also conducts workshops on gender, safety and leadership.
Tanvie Hans, the first and only Indian woman to play in the English Premier League, coached the girls at Mayo last year. She believes football has empowered girls to demand rights and ask for privileges from parents.
“I spent two amazing days with these kids. They are not only improving their physical prowess, but also imbibing a competitive spirit. Football teaches you decision-making and the ability to handle loss. It is the perfect sport because it gives them access to various life skills,” Hans, who played for Tottenham Hotspurs and Fulham clubs, told Al Jazeera.
Phoosi Devi, who had been watching her daughter Monica play in the Ajmer match, said playing football was the best thing that could have happened for the girls as it allowed them to travel and learn about the ways of the world.
“My husband says what’s the use of football if it doesn’t get the girls a job. But I believe that it has given the girls self-confidence that they never had. My girls are smarter than my boys today because of football,” she says.