Devi has seen many struggles as an uneducated tribal woman, but all the fight for her children have been worth her time. For the fifty-year-old mother of , watching her youngest scale heights in football and visiting United Kingdom to play an inter school football tournament has brought alive dreams, hopes and the zeal to continue her fight against the naysayers.
"When started playing football, everyone in the community, including my husband was against the idea. A girl wearing shorts and spending time playing football was not only looked down upon but was fiercely contradicted by so many people. I remember being stopped by villagers concerned about me allowing the girl to play football and being called out for being a bad mother. Today, my daughter has made me proud and has given me a reason to believe that every snide comment I ignored and every advice I didn't take was worth the trouble," said .
With her husband unemployed for a larger part of the year, she earns a living for her family of six-- with four daughters, of which is the youngest; by selling Hadiya-- a locally brewed rice beer in the nearby (rural market) in --- a remote village on the outskirts of Jharkhand's state capital, Ranchi. Football, for her and her 17-year-old daughter , has brought in a reason to dream again.
daughter has been associated with OSCAR (Organization for Social Change, Awareness and Responsibility) Foundation's football training program that runs from Chari on the outskirts of Ranchi for five years now. She has not only represented Jharkhand in several national tournaments but has also been one of the eight girls from Jharkhand who played in a UK Schools Tour, OSCAR ‘Kick Like a Girl’ in October last year.
But the transformation through football wasn’t an easy one for the 200 odd girls who have taken to the sports around Irba and Kanke. Social stigma aside, acute poverty and challenges like the lack of even a square meal, threats of looming early marriage and no support from their families have been a problem for these tribal girls, some 30 kilometers out of Ranchi. Even so, football has been their tool for fearlessness, one kick at a time.
“When I was told I am going to visit Russia to witness a World Cup match to be a part of the Football for Hope Movement—a project of FIFA to promote football as a medium for development and growth, I couldn’t believe myself. I still remember the first time I went on the field, so unsure of myself that I couldn’t even manage to kick the ball for the first week. I was all awkward wearing the sports gear and afraid of people judging me. During my Russia visit, I got to play a friendly match with other members of the delegation from all over the world, and I befriended a girl- Barbara from Brazil who also shared a similar story. Football has changed my stand in the society and without it, I would have simply dropped out of school like many other girls in my village,” said Shital Toppo, who is currently studying commerce in Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav College. She has not only inspired her elder brother to resume studies; but many other young faces in her village to rise up and become a part of the change that football has initiated in her life.
For 16-year-old Kumari, completion of matriculation was supposed to be marked by an early marriage like hundreds of young girls around her. Her elder brother, a school dropout himself forced her to work as a farm laborer, but football became her weapon of protest too.
“My brother didn’t hesitate to beat me up just to stop me from playing football. My trip to UK was a game changer as now everyone in the family has finally stopped talking about marriage. My parents are happy about my achievements and I am continuing my studies,” she said.
The narrative of how football empowered these village girls to embrace their identities to become string independent individuals is a story that never fails to inspire. 53-year-old Helena Tete, who has been mentoring the girls since the early days of the program has been a witness to the transformation story of these girls and how football has empowered them to become what they are today. “When we started the training in 2013, the girls who initially took part in the training were scared and hesitating. Their families were reluctant as they didn’t see a future in sports for them. Today, every time they play a national tournament or win a match, it is such a proud moment for us,” Tete said.
Started in Chari , the program now covers 8 different Tolas (group of villages) from where OSCAR Foundation encourages young girls to come ahead and learn football. Many players from the training institute have made it to Under 15 and Under 17 teams of Jharkhand too.
Though professional football will not be a part of the larger plan for the many girls, but for now, they are rewriting their life through a sport that has helped them realize their worth in the world.
“I started playing football when I was in class eight and I arrived in the field wearing a traditional skirt. I thought people will make fun of me but instead, I mastered football in a way I never thought I could. The most important thing to me is that my mother’s decision to let me play football has resulted into something huge for me. As I teach young girls now, it feels good to be a person who others look up to,” added , who dreams of taking her football career forward along with higher studies. And with football by her side, she believes she can achieve every dream she has.
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