Fourteen-year-old Aafreen says: “Since I’ve started to go for football on my own, I feel that I can do anything by myself. It makes me strong and gives me a choice to be independent and not live the life led by my mother.” Last year, two girls were given scholarships of Rs 5 lakh each and sent to Hyderabad to play football and study there. It inspired many of the younger ones to take football more
Haji colony, a small slum in Jamia Nagar, Delhi, is somnambulant as ever in the summer heat. The few women visible outside their homes scurry around doing their chores in the afternoon shadows. Groups of men and boys from different age groups sit on small stools, chatting about cricket matches, among other things. I hesitantly interrupted one such group, introducing myself and asking an old man, "Sir, do you know of any girl in this colony who plays football or any kind of sport in the evenings?" He hadn't paid much heed to my introduction but I noticed irritation in his eyes. He looked up and said, "Girls don't play football in this colony; this is not that kind of a place. Yes, the boys play in the evening; the playground is at the end of the road, you can talk to them if you want." And then I was asked to leave.
My quest in Haji colony was sparked by a friend who'd mentioned that an NGO working with girls in the area had introduced football training for them. This was unusual. After a two-hour walk through the narrow lanes there, I ran into a middle-aged woman. She led me to a girl who was part of the football initiative run by the NGO Cequin. Cequin, backed by Sarah Pilot, wife of Congress politician Sachin Pilot, is working towards the empowerment of women in and around Jamia Nagar by giving young girls of different age groups an opportunity to express themselves through football.
Girls from the surrounding areas play football four days a week in the Jamia Millia Islamia sports complex under the guidance of a coach and a physical trainer. Most of them live in one of the many ghettos around here and would never have dreamed of entering the world of football which, in their society, was considered the preserve of boys and men. Cequin started the initiative in 2011. Initially, participation was low as parents were unwilling to let their girls play. Shazia, a non-formal education instructor at Cequin, said, "Initially, many people had a problem with the dress-code. But we were very persistent and convinced people that it was safe to send their daughters for some physical exercise in the evening, that playing football will be beneficial. We assured them the coach will be a woman and their daughters will be playing in a safe environment." Their persistence paid-off, and now, more and more people are allowing their daughters to play the sport.
Renu, the coach appointed for the programme, is a university and district level football player and believes in the power of sports to develop life skills. "I think sports can give you a lot of confidence and helps in the development of one's personality," she said. Acceptance of the initiative is still tentative, and retaining girls in the programme remains a challenge. As Renu added, "We recently lost our best player because her parents wouldn't allow her to play after she was spotted with a boy in a market. She has been grounded indefinitely, till she gets married to a boy chosen by the family. Some girls don't get permission because their parents feel they will get tanned and it will be hard to find a groom for them." Parents generally do not send their daughters to play fearing strong reactions from neighbours and the local community. "People need to change the way they think. Sports must be played by all; men and women. There are many problems we have faced in the last four years; some parents took a lot of convincing. There are still some girls who leave their homes in hijabs but come here and change into the kit."
When I asked her about the greatest achievement of the Cequin team, Renu's eyes lit up as she told me about a victory that the girls achieved at Modern School, Barakhamba Road, one of the top schools in the capital. She described how the senior team came back from a 1-0 deficit to clinch a 2-1 victory in the final. The NGO was very proud of how the girls performed and awarded Karbonn smartphones to the 51 girls who are regulars, as a reward for their performance.
As for the girls, they feel that football has helped them immensely, building confidence and giving them a sense of control over their choices. "I have been playing football for four years now and I feel great about it because that's the only time in the day when I can forget all my troubles and enjoy the moment," said Daraksha, one of the oldest participants of the programme.
Fourteen-year-old Aafreen says: "Since I've started to go for football on my own, I feel that I can do anything by myself. It makes me strong and gives me a choice to be independent and not live the life led by my mother."
Last year, two girls were given scholarships of Rs 5 lakh each and sent to Hyderabad to play football and study there. It inspired many of the younger ones to take football more seriously. Zainab Khan, a 16-year-old who is preparing for her board exams, is optimistic that she will get a scholarship and go to a new city to study as well. "I want to live alone and manage my own life; I hate being dependent on someone," Zainab said.
Some parents, too, see this initiative as a blessing. Noor Javed, a housewife and mother of 11-year-old Kulsum, comes every day to watch the game in the evening. "I feel very good when I watch my daughter play here. She's getting better by the day. I can see the change; I have been coming for two years now. I want her to get a good education and work in a company. I don't want her to be like me." But, just as important as the empowerment is the sheer joy of the game. It's handed the young girls in the slums around Haji colony a chance to craft their own futures.