Imphal/Ranchi, India: Sports initiatives are helping bring about social changes and giving women a refuge from the life of misery in India’s strife-torn states of Manipur and Jharkhand.
Manipur is a militancy affected state where life is caught in the crossfire between Indian security forces and ethnic separatists for six decades now.
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Almost a quarter of Manipur’s 700,000 population is unemployed. There are around 40,000-50,000 drug addicts and prevalence of HIV is at 1.22% as against the national prevalence of 0.27% in 2011.
They have been fighting for an independent state, resulting in more than 20,000 deaths over the last 60 years.
“Every day, three to four people are shot dead in Manipur’s ongoing conflict,” Binalakshmi Nepram of Control Arms Foundation India, said.
“Although women and children are not targeted directly, they are traumatised by the death of family members. Sport is an important escape that young people have that helps ensure they have a normal life.”
Sport to the rescue
For Manipuris, baseball has proved a powerful bonding mechanism.
Devika, mother of two, is a national-level baseball player and coach. Despite the talent and potential, the 32-year-old could not compete in international competitions as she could not afford the travel expenses.
She now coaches young Manipuri girls, hoping to realise her dream through them.
According to Mirra Bank, director of The Only Real Game, a documentary about baseball in Manipur, the sport came to the state during the World War II via the US Army Air Corps.
“When the young Manipuris saw the Americans playing baseball, they developed a liking for the sport,” said Bank.
Explaining how deep-seeded baseball is among Manipuris, Devika, who started playing aged just nine, said: “The love for baseball runs in our veins, we play because it gives us happiness”.
Smitten by the community’s love for baseball, a New York charity called First Pitch decided to help out. The non-profit enlisted Major League Baseball to send emissaries and equipment to help local coaches hone their skills in 2006.
As part of their US-Manipur Baseball Project, Jeff Brueggemann and his fellow MLB coach Dave Palese landed in Imphal and were surprised to see that many of their students were women.
The love for baseball runs in our veins, we play because that gives us happiness
“The women take the game more seriously – not competitively, but as a possible profession and possibility of helping others in their community,” Brueggemann told Al Jazeera.
“That’s unique. Most people I coach just want to learn the game and play.”
Imphal has over 20 baseball clubs, and could soon have the country’s first baseball stadium as the state government has decided to pitch in.
Football uniting the community
Around 1,500km away, a similar initiative, run by another non-profit called Yuwa, is changing the lives of the likes of Kusum Kumari in Jharkhand.
Jharkhand leads Indian states in child marriages and human trafficking. Around 55.7% of women in Jharkhand were married off as a child.
Co-founded by US citizen Franz Gastler, Yuwa uses football to empower girls by giving free education and teaching life skills. The organisation teaches 150 girls, aged 5-17 and from poor tribal families, football, English and maths skills.
“I had no ambition and direction in life,” said Sumitra Kumari, 14, who joined Yuwa in 2009.
“Had I not been playing football, my parents would’ve married me off at a young age. But their mindset has changed now. They want me to chase my dreams.”
Though her parents were supportive, Sumitra was subjected to criticism from neighbours.
“I was told not to wear shorts as I am a girl. But when I went to America for the USA Cup, I saw there was no difference between boys and girls. They were being treated equally. I hope this change comes to our village too.”
According to a social activist Sanjay Mishra, the girls in Jharkhand are sold by traffickers as domestic slaves and are vulnerable to sexual exploitation too. The girls are sold for INR15,000 ($241) to INR20,000 ($321).”
After Yuwa came into the picture, people’s mindset towards girls started changing.
“Now, everybody in our village knows that it is a crime to marry off under-18 girls,” said one of the girl’s father. “The mindset is now changing and you can see almost all the girls in our area are going to school.”
The team did the country proud by bagging the third spot in the Donosti Cup and qualifying for the prestigious Gasteiz Cup in Spain in 2013. Last year, they took a shot at USA Cup.
Although they crashed out of the tournament before reaching the semis, it made them the first Indian to team to participate in such a prestigious competition.