India: In the footsteps of the girls that play Kabaddi
“The most important rule of Kabaddi is freedom,
which must be maintained at all costs.”
Soma Das, Kabaddi project manager for Terre des hommes, knows her mission. The girls she accompanies must become free. On the field, but above all, off it. And if the path to reach the objective is long and tortuous, great progress has already been made. You only have to watch the girls get off the train in Calcutta one by one: determined but joyful looks, smiles on their lips, joking, laughing, and getting livelier.
They arrive from Malda, Siliguri or Berhampur, where they live, to participate in the Kabaddi league. Belonging to communities that have migrated from rural areas so as to be closer to the big cities, they are not really used to travelling. “Those who had experience of the first tournaments helped the others," explains Paulami de Sakar, head of the protection programme in India. This is one of the strengths of Kabaddi and of this project initiated by Tdh with Praajak, its partner in India, together with the government of West Bengal and the local authorities: to encourage the girls to feel strong collectively, to help each other and to create links to understand that it is easier to defend oneself with others.
Noise and emotion at the competition
In Calcutta, the audience has come in large numbers for the competition and there is a buzz during the match. The girls compete in teams of seven and use their wits, flexibility, physical strength and tactical discipline. Each game session lasts 30 seconds, during which a team sends one of its members, the "raider", into the opposing camp. This person must manage to hit at least one opponent and return to her camp without being caught, otherwise she is eliminated. And if she manages to hit an opponent, she takes her out of the game and "resurrects" one of her friends. The team with the fewest number of women eliminated at the end of the game wins the match.
After the tournament, the girls are congratulated by government officials, champions of the sport and members of the national federation. Paulami is happy to see these tributes. "It means a lot to the girls, but especially to their parents: they are even more encouraged to entrust them to us, thus generating a positive repercussion in the community.”
Convincing parents, the first big challenge
This was one of the major challenges at the start of the project: convincing families that teenage girls have the right to play Kabaddi. “Our social workers did a lot of field work to gain the trust of the families," explains Deep Purkayastha, director of Prajak. The challenges were many. The first was to get permission for the girls to leave the house, especially in sportswear when they are not normally allowed to wear shorts.
“Since the first Kabaddi league, things have changed," said Soma. Parents quickly grasped the issue when a decisive argument was put forward: the possibility that girls could find a job if they perform in Kabaddi, as Deep summarises: "Thanks to the certifications of the Kabaddi federation, they can enter law enforcement bodies or become coaches by joining the federation. So it is a chance for the parents if their daughter can find a job.”
The first big challenge for our teams on the ground is to gain the trust of parents to let their daughters play at Kabaddi.
The future is a concern for families. In these very poor communities, the question of work is crucial. The young girls are destined to be married off quickly to relieve the family finances. The young men, no more motivated by the idea of an early marriage, must also accept their parents' decision and leave school to support their new home. And the story repeats itself, generation after generation.
These communities are often located in unsanitary areas where public facilities are scarce. Many have taken up government land around the railways and their makeshift housing is not weatherproof. But the young girls, encouraged by what they learn from the Tdh facilitators, want to fight.
Kabaddi players in training: team spirit is a life skill they learn.
Role models for other girls
Gradually, parents are not only accepting these changes but are proud of them, as Sulekha, the mother of 16-year-old Kashmira who participates in the Kabaddi project in Malda, points out: "I want my daughter to be an educated and independent person.” The father testifies to Kashmira's metamorphosis: "Earlier she was very quiet but now she has become the most talkative person in the house." The main person concerned is aware of her evolution. She already knows how to react if her parents decide to force her into marriage: "I will stop eating, threaten to leave the house and show my angry face."
Kashmira knows that her future is being decided now. "If I get married without a job, I will be worthless. If I have a job, I will contribute to the family as much as my husband does, so I will have the same rights to express myself as he does.” A message she also wants to convey to other young girls. "I want to help disadvantaged girls like me, to make sure that no girl is tortured or forced into marriage like my mother was. They don't have to suffer.”
Kashmira feels so strong today because of the lessons she learned at Kabaddi and in the gender sessions. She says she is also inspired by the story of a playmate, Hasina, which she finds “amazing”. Hasina escaped marriage at the age of 16 by joining the Kabaddi team. Since then, she has been an icon for many teenage girls in her community as she has been selected at state level and is looking forward to a professional future in the sport. When she goes out on the field to give advice, her new status impresses the younger players. Because that is what it is all about now: passing on.
Since the beginning of the project, more than 1400 girls got their start through the Kabaddi springboard. Whether they left Calcutta and the Kabaddi league with or without a medal was of little importance: for each of them, the journey was a further step in their quest for freedom and independence.
Kashmira with the trophy his team won in the Kabaddi league for the under-18 category.
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Photo credit: © Tdh/Ranita Roy