Driven by dreams of winning medals for their country, nearly two dozen girls and young women are training to become wrestlers in a cluster of white one-storey buildings standing on a dusty track winding through farmland on the edge of a north Indian village.
Run by a couple convinced that sport can fuel aspirations and build confidence, the Altius wrestling school in Sisai village of Haryana state, about a three-hour drive from the Indian capital, aims to change perceptions.
“There is no value of a woman in a village,” Usha Sharma, India’s first female wrestling coach, said. “In a village, an animal has more value to it than a woman, as an animal gives milk and there is cost attached to it.”
Whether they become champions or not, the girls from humble families receive rare lessons in female empowerment during their training at the residential centre Sharma set up in 2009, along with her husband, Sanjay Sihag, a sports teacher.
Sharma, 50, is a serving police officer, and her stark comments indict rural society in a country where poverty, tradition and conservative attitudes hinder women’s rights.
In the nearby fields, village women, covered from head to toe, graze cattle. Some of the students could have shared that destiny, but for the chance of a different life that the school has given them.
“When I opened the academy and we started getting medals, it felt nice to know that the same girls who used to graze cows and buffaloes were now being favoured by the men in the family,” said Sharma.
Wrestling is popular among Indian men, with thousands of training centres nationwide.
But a new generation of women was inspired by the triumph of Geeta Phogat, who became the first female Indian wrestler to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2010.
Indian women won three bronze medals at the recent Asian Games in China, and last year a former Altius student won bronze at the Commonwealth Games in the United Kingdom.