Under 9 Rugby Rocking Kolkata

Bringing our under 9s together on Crow Field was a new and enjoyable experience for players and coaches alike.

By Peter Fernandes

Under 9s was the order of the day on 25th February 2018 – a great day of rugby as the smaller children from our Khelo Rugby programme exhibited their very good rugby skills, had lots of fun and made new friends from across our communities. The tournament featured a total of 20 teams made up of 230 children participating from 24 different Khelo locations. With our commitment to gender equality we opted to play a 6-a-side mixed team tag rugby tournament. Each squad had to have a mixed composition of 5 girls and 5 boys. The 20 teams were coached and looked after by 46 young Khelo community coaches. The coaches did a splendid job and ensured that the children had a great time.

We saw the tournament as a great opportunity for the younger children in our program to play in a professionally organized tournament.  A total of 57 matches were played with a whopping 311 tries being scored. Every child was given a healthy breakfast when they started the day and lunch at the end of the tournament.

The following teams took the top honours:

Cup Winners – Fatehpur

Plater Winners – Jainkunj

Bowl Winners – Khatal

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Interesting findings/observations: 311 tries were scored in total at the tournament, with the Cup, Bowl and Plate finals itself producing 24 tries! It’s an astounding achievement meaning there was more than one try for every minute of play! The children were very disciplined and listened to all the instructions handed out during the course of the tournament. The level of rugby was simply amazing!

Let’s meet some of those taking part.J SantoshJ Santosh, Young leader from Fatehpur “For the U-9 tournament, the team trained hard every day for about a month. The tournament was super fun. Dealing with the young children was a big challenge but an experience I would cherish forever. Watching the children play such good rugby at the tournament makes me feel proud. They are so young but displayed so much maturity on the field that it surprised me a lot. Winning the cup was a result of all the hard work and dedication of the young children. I will continue coaching rugby to the children of Fatehpur and these lovely children are a big part of my life now.”Priya Pandit and Ayman FirdousPriya Pandit (14 yrs) and Ayman Firdous (12 yrs) were responsible for the tournament fixtures, scorekeeping and time management. Both are young girls from our Howrah Pilkhana community and did a splendid job that ensured that the matches run as per schedule and on time.

Ayman “This was the first time that I was given the responsibility of managing the tournament fixtures. It was a lot of hard work and the weather was very hot. I had to inform all the teams of their match timings. I kept 2 young leaders assigned to tell the teams for the upcoming matches. Considering we had 4 fields setup, there were 8 teams that had to be kept ready to take on to the field as soon as the ongoing matches would end. I loved the experience. I think we did a good job as we finished the matches on time”, said Ayman with a big smile on her face.

Priya “I learnt something new today. At first I was a bit nervous but I knew my rugby coach Akash was there to support me. For the first time, I had seen 4 fields being setup and 4 matches being played simultaneously at one time. It was a bit nerve wrecking but super fun. Noticing the confidence bestowed on me by my coaches, I felt more comfortable with my role. I had to keep track of scores from field no.1 and give the scores to the scorer’s table. I also helped in the presentation ceremony. It was another first time experience talking in front of 200+ children. I enjoyed it.”Aditya Singh and Khushi ShawI caught up with a very thrilled Aditya Singh and Khushi Shaw of team Fatehpur after the Cup final match where they beat Brooklyn 3-2 in a closely fought finals match. “We are so happy that we won the tournament! This is our first trophy and we will show all our friends in Fatehpur this trophy. We did not expect this. We practised a lot for this tournament. When we reached the finals, everyone was a bit tense and nervous. For both of us, the final was the best match. Overall we had a great day and enjoyed a lot. I made so many new friends today” said Khushi. Khushi was also bestowed with the player of the tournament award for being the leader of the team.Alisha Khatoon and Sanny AliAlisha Khatoon and Sanny Ali were in the Brooklyn team that stood Cup runner-up in the tournament. Alisha, “when I reached the field today morning, I was so surprised to see so many children from different parts of Calcutta. I did not know so many children played rugby. The playing field is so nice and the grass is so good to play on. I had great fun. The field was my favourite part. I made 3 new friends today, one from Pilkhana, one from Dhapa and one from Jainkunj. I hope I get to meet them again”. Sanny, “I can’t wait for the next tournament. I had great fun. I love rugby and I will practise harder to win the final next time. We have lot of children in our para (community) that play rugby and I want to continue playing this game.”Sapna YadavSapna Yadav from Jainkunj “I am so happy today. My parents were not allowing me to play before but thanks to coach Subroto, I am here today at this tournament. He spoke to the parents of all the girls in our para (community). I am so shocked to see so many girls from Kolkata playing rugby. I now feel special. I will never forget this day and it will always bring good memories to my mind.”Sandip KumarSandip Kumar, “we worked very hard and practised a lot at our field back home. I am happy that we are taking back the plate trophy back to our para. Next time hopefully we will be cup winners. This was my first tournament experience and I had great fun. I am looking forward to the next one.”

A special big THANK YOU To all the 40+ Khelo coaches, 200+ children, fantastic team at the Robin Hood Army for the lunch, Sudhir and Ravi for cleaning the ground and arranging for the breakfast and drinking water.DSC06998You can also watch a short movie with plenty of the action on our You Tube channel here!

 

 

Rugby Conversion

Poem from Swindon (UK) Community Poet, Tony Hillier, in celebration of the Youth Sevens Rugby, organised by Future Hope, Kolkata, India, 3 March 2018 

Rugby Conversion

By Tony Hillier

In blue and white tiered seating
of footballer Sailen Manna’s Stadium
rugby was the order of the day
All India and International Youth Tournament
kicked off at 8 a.m. in 30 degrees already

Reds and greens on pukka green grass
as first tournament try scored by Jungle Crows
Some mis-matched teams in this learning game
It’s pick it up and run, run, run, then try, try, try
In logoed vest, hosts Future Hope, try their best

Crows’ brush fully loaded for whitewash
Two tries second half; such a murder of crows
– smiley!

Smart, white Caravel-sponsored tops,
identify “Coach”, “Referee”
All badged, quite rightly so,
30 years of Future Hope
Males of course. Females of course
‘Game over, an Ace Foundation handshake tunnel’

Teamwork amongst the ball girls
and ball boys, keep games flowing
Teamwork round touchlines means
New ball, always centre-spotted

“Coming next Mumbai plays Armenia.
Can I have the captains please?”

On sunshaded terrace, in plus thirty degrees,
the welcome fan drones
Above field of play, another drone,
Camera zoomed in from Hong Kong
Captures the worker drones of Indian Rugby
always trying their best.
‘Meanwhile, Yellow leopards,
primed to pounce from sidelines
Later give Jungle Crows a run for their money’

White shirt team does team press ups.
Pirate Ants form their team-talk-hill.
‘Adibasi gets one back on Ants;
a cheeky, well-earned try.’

These students, just 7-17,
tackle many problems on streets;
Tackle tactical challenges on rugby field.
On streets required to try to survive.
On rugby pitch,
we have seen today,
children choosing to thrive.

Little Humans of Saraswatipur

Originally published by Leher, as part of their #LittleHumans blog series here we profile five children from Saraswatipur – hear about them and their ambitions.

by Noah McDaniel

Saraswatipur, a cluster of picturesque villages situated around sprawling tea gardens in the north of West Bengal is about 30 kms away from Siliguri. Positioned on the banks of the Teesta River, on the edge of the jungle, one can’t miss the view of the Himalayas on a clear day. The predominant line of work is at the tea estate – picking and processing tea leaves. From a population of 2000 people, 1500 people are employed by the tea factory, passed down across generations.

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Today, this tucked away little village is being known for more than just its tea. News from the region boasts of the burgeoning young talent on the rugby field. In 2012, Father George Matthew was transferred to Saraswatipur to head a local parish. He noticed the athletic potential of the children and reached out to the Khelo Rugby team, to bring the program to the village. Within a few weeks, two coaches moved to the village and the program was set up within a month. Ever since, the program has seen unprecedented success with the children of Saraswatipur playing for the West Bengal state and national Indian rugby teams.

Khelo Rugby brings adventure, challenge and excitement to the lives of children. Present in Kolkata and parts of West Bengal, this program has also made its way to Afghanistan and Pakistan, reaching out to children from disadvantaged communities by incorporating sports as a social development tool. Managed by youngsters themselves, Khelo Rubgy is building this program with scholarships and a curriculum of social issues.

This week, we bring you stories of Little Humans from Saraswatipur for whom the rugby field is now second home.

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Eliyas is a very smart 8th grader, studying at the Rajaranga National Hindi High School. He excels in all of his classes, but Hindi is his favorite.

Yet, Eliyas’s passion is playing rugby. He has been playing for 4 years and never misses practice. His favourite positions are center back and flanker and he is always chosen to throw the ball in during line outs. He brags that he is the best passer on his team and can pass accurately to his left and his right.

When he finishes 12th grade, Eliyas wants to move to Kolkata. He has heard many stories of the city from friends and family who have been there.

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Sonali is 12 years old and is in the 8th grade at Katalguri Junior High School. She loves History because she wants to learn about how people lived a long time ago. Her mother says she is very dedicated to her studies, but waits eagerly each afternoon to play rugby.

Sonali joined Khelo Rugby in 2013. She was a little shy at first and would sit on the sidelines and watch the others play. But soon enough, she mustered the courage to play, dove right into the game and never looked back. For Sonali, although playing rugby is great fun, the most important aspect of her practice is fitness. When she turns 18, Sonali wants to join the Air Force and she knows that being physically fit is a critical component of this. She admires those who have volunteered to serve their country and wants to follow in their footsteps.

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Debaraj lives in a small hut with his parents right on the edge of the tea fields where both of his parents work. Debaraj has big plans for his future. His favorite subject in school is English and when he grows up he wants to become an English teacher.

He knows he has to study hard to achieve this goal and studies English for hours every day. But, it’s hard to find the time to study. The power goes out frequently at his house in the evenings and often elephants wander through the village looking for food and destroying the thatched huts in which people live. Debaraj recalls one night when an elephant came to his neighbour’s home and began ripping off chunks of the roof to try and get the rice he smelled inside.

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John Paul has swag, both on and off the field. In the mornings, he takes a bike to school along with the older Saraswatipur children. Most students take 30 minutes to get to school, but John Paul brags cheekily that he can make it in 20.

Both his parents pick leaves at the tea garden, but when he grows up, John wants to be a forest ranger like his uncle. Saraswatipur has weekly run-ins with wild elephants that can be quite dangerous. John’s uncle plays a crucial role in protecting the elephants and their habitat while also keeping them from hurting people in their search for food. John wishes to grow up and help protect his family and friends from the elephants and ensure that the elephants can still safely live in the jungle.

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Rehan is a shy, young, 10 year old boy who lives in the tea garden village of Saraswatipur. His day starts at 5 am every day when he gets up to do his chores and help his mother sweep, clean, and feed their livestock. After he finishes, this 5th grader packs his bag and heads to school. Rehan’s favorite subject is Bangla because he loves reading novels. Once school gets over at 3 pm in the afternoon, Rehan walks home and sits down to do his homework. Once he finishes, he rewards himself by watching Hindi serials on TV.

Although Rehan is a reserved person, he’s quite the opposite on the rugby field. He was introduced to Khelo rugby by a friend 3 years ago and has been playing rugby ever since. Speed is essential in rugby and Rehan is fast enough to play every position on his team.

When he graduates from school, Rehan dreams of following in his sister’s footsteps and moving to the big city. A few years ago, Rehan’s sister was offered a position working for Decathlon in Kolkata and Rehan hopes to work with her when he grows older.

-Thanks to Leher for agreeing to let us publish these stories on our blog – learn more about Leher from their websitefacebook or twitter!

Spirit of Rugby Live In Kolkata

On 10 December we brought together ten NGOs to play rugby in Calcutta as part of our mission to spread the game and share the “Spirit of Rugby” with more and more children. We played a lot of rugby but also took some small steps on a bigger mission, that of equality and justice.

by Nidhi Gelani

“If you want the ball, don’t stand and wait for them to give it to you…..go and get it!” These words kept ringing in my mind long after I heard coach Turi motivate a young girl who was standing on the side line, disheartened that the boys in her team weren’t passing the ball to her. Well, it’s one thing talking about equality, gender inclusion and to create a gender fair environment but it can be a different thing in the field.

At Khelo Rugby we work directly with underprivileged communities in and around the city, we also collaborate with various other non-profit organisations. We decided to use the banner of “Spirit of Rugby” to introduce a whole new community to rugby. And as part of this took the step to coach 100s more children across the city. By using tag-rugby we aimed to make a more level playing environment between those few organisations that already played and those comparatively new to rugby. Each team was also required to have at least three girls on the field at all times.

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10th December was also the International Human Rights Day which just added an extra value to the tournament. We had loads of girls and boys out playing together reinforcing the beliefs that Khelo Rugby stands up for – the equal dignity and worth of every person.

“Gender inclusion to combat gender inequality.” We had mixed teams to instill the value of equality among the children. While seeing this I was vividly reminded of this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt which is at the heart of 7o years of the Decalration of Human Rights: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. […] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” Every word of this is filled with meaning and is a call to action for all of us.

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“Change” is not just a word with 6 letters, but a word which has caused war and is also the reason behind reconciliation. Well, it’s also a word we use so commonly that the depth of it has been lost. Here, in Khelo Rugby we believe in motivating the children we work with by planting seeds of change which are nurtured by their own will to excel and grow. We start small, close to home in the environment the children are most comfortable in. Weaving concepts like gender equality and human rights within our tournaments and daily sessions.

“Passion” is another big part of Khelo Rugby. Being a part of the team for almost 6 months now I am a strong believer in this.  On the morning of the tournament, at 6:30am our team of coaches and young leaders reached the field to carry out the necessary arrangements before the tournament. They were welcomed by heavy rainfall and cold winds making the whole event questionable. Till about 7:30 we were all hesitant whether to carry on with the planned event or not as the rain decided to keep pouring. That is when we saw the children who had arrived on the field warming up and eagerly waiting for the games to begin completely ignoring the rain and cold winds. That is when I realised that the zeal to play beats the challenging weather as well. Once the children had changed into their playing jersey, warmed up and were ready to play there was no looking back.

At 8am we began the tournament and to my surprise it went just as planned. The tournament was organised and executed by our group of extremely talented and motivated young leaders. At one point where we were thinking of calling off the event the enthusiasm and sports spirit displayed by the children on the field was a complete treat to watch. 10 charities from across the city participated with a total of 120 children playing enthusiastically on the field. The breakfast for all the children was generously sponsored by local restaurant Hakuna Matata. A team from the restaurant joined our children on the field which was great to see. The onlookers were all so surprised and amazed to watch young children running about the ground playing some excellent rugby completely oblivious of the shivering weather.

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We were also host to 26 students from Auckland Grammar School visiting India from New Zealand. Both sets of youngsters were eager to shake hands and be involved in the games. The AGS students were each given a team to look after, a few volunteered to referee as well. The children were thrilled to have visitors as they helped the teams warm up, play and also spent time playing games while waiting for their matches to begin.

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The children from the participating NGOs were trained and chosen by our group of coaches and hence each coach had an almost nail-biting experience when their teams played. All in all, the passion for rugby, the enthusiasm of children, the support and help from our visitors, determination and planning of our young leaders not only made this tournament a success but also helped overcome the challenge of bad weather it was a great and fulfilling experience.

The team from Don Bosco Ashalyam lifted the winning trophy followed by the Future Hope team who were the runners-up of the tournament. The Decathlon Foundation team were the Plate winners and Loreto Rainbow the Bowl winners.

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A dodgy beginning to the tournament ended with a happy bang! The day ended with the senior coaches encouraging the children and complimenting their remarkable efforts. A brief prize distribution ceremony was conducted where a few prizes were given away to the children by our visitors.

And finally, what comes to our mind when we talk about Rugby and New Zealand… yes definitely Haka! But our Khelo children are not far behind… we too have our own Haka!  The boys from the Grammar school showcased some extraordinary Haka on popular demand followed by our very own Khelo children winning over hearts with their very own Khelo Haka.

A life changing impact is created when a lot of small efforts add up. These tournaments are the small steps Khelo Rugby takes to ensure we give our children the right guidance, making them responsible citizens. Engaging our children in such tournaments is the Khelo way to take small steps in acting for equality, justice and human dignity!

 

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Spirit of Rugby Nepal

The story of Khelo Rugby’s Himalayan rugby odyssey.

by Akash Balmiki

This story starts a long way from the Himalaya’s near the Everglades jungles of Florida. In 2015 I was selected to represent Khelo Rugby and the Jungle Crows at a United Nations Sports for Development programme at the IMG Academy in Florida. At IMG I met Prateek who was from Nepal, he worked for an NGO named Childreach and we became friends because we were both passionate about sport.

As always I talked a lot about rugby with Prateek. He’d no knowledge of the game at all, but we could both see how much fun it would be to take the game with the odd shaped ball to the children of Nepal. Jump to 2016 and the story is taken forward by colleagues Paul and Hari when they meet up with Prateek in Kathmandu during the Hong Kong Vandals rugby tour. By this time Prateek and the work of Childreach has been taken over by the terrible effects of the 2015 earthquake – villages destroyed, lives broken and communities devastated.

A rugby visit to Nepal was just within reach but it needed one more piece of the puzzle to make it all possible and that was World Rugby’s Spirit of Rugby programme. A grant awarded to the Jungle Crows to take their Khelo Rugby project further afield, this was just the incentive needed to make my rugby odyssey to Nepal a reality.

Planning was able to start and in October 2017 our Nepal rugby journey began. I was very lucky to travel with my Khelo Rugby teammates Turi, Kirpa and Barkha – together we were able to keep motivating and encouraging each other. We all joined up for the first stage of the trip in Saraswatipur where we ran through our plans and finalised roles and responsibilities. We were to focus on teaching the children tag rugby along with the 5 core values of rugby. I along with my Khelo teammate Turi conducted a few of our BASIC Training sessions (Being A Smart and Innovative Coach). We were joined in Saraswatipur by Prateek and his colleague Shamsher – it was great to be able to show them what we had so far achieved in Saraswatipur.

Our journey proper began from Siliguri. We were all very excited to be taking Khelo Rugby to Nepal, to be sharing it with a whole new group of children. The first leg of the journey was a marathon bus ride from Kakabhitta to Kathmandu which took around 16 hours. It was a challenging journey as travelling in the mountains is never easy. We reached Kathmandu safely and were warmly greeted by the Childreach team.

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In Kathmandu we were joined by a group of  4 talented and experienced volunteers from “Coaches Across Continents”. We discussed our plans with them and shared our experiences as well. We then embarked on a 10 hour journey to Dolakha which kept us on the edge of our seats as the mountain roads were difficult and yes, scary too!

The school we worked with first had been destroyed by the earthquake in 2015. Childreach Nepal had helped to reconstruct the school and build new toilets for the children of the school. I had been apprehensive in case of any language barrier with the children but soon discovered the influence of Bollywood movies and songs meant all the children had good Hindi.

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First day at school we saw many boys and girls playing football, this was a good sign and they were very excited to learn rugby, a whole new sport for them. The shape of the rugby ball made some children smile, some laugh and some ask questions. Well, it took me back to when I started playing as a young boy fascinated by the shape of the ball. After a brief nostalgic moment I explained to them why we were there and began our first session – “Khelo Khelo” as we say.

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One of our challenges was to teach the children the five core values of rugby namely, “Respect, Discipline, Passion, Solidarity and Integrity”. We took up one value each day. We focussed our session around that value. We played games and a lot of rugby and at the end conducted charcha sessions explaining the meaning of each value and what it meant to us in practical terms. The team worked really  hard to teach 68 children about these values through games and open discussions. The challenge was made much easier by children who were very talented and quick learners. They grabbed the topics easily and also learnt the game fast. At end of the week we organised a Spirit of Rugby Tournament. I must admit, it was a treat to watch young boys and girls play such good rugby. I was really happy and proud of our team for having been able to teach good quality rugby to children playing for the first time.

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After a great experience at Dolakha, we headed back to Kathmandu. After a week of intense training we finally got some time to relax but it was just a short stop as very quickly we were on our travels again. One more village awaited, more traveling, more children and more rugby.

Our next destination was Sindhupalchok, a village about 8 hours from Kathmandu. This village was also destroyed in the earthquake and had suffered more damage compared to Dolakha. We started with a group of 48 young boys and girls eager to learn rugby. Our session plans remained much the same but with a few newer challenges as the coaching team grew bigger as we had more volunteers wanting to be involved in sessions. The days were packed with intense training and by the time we hit our beds we were all very quickly snoring!

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The second tournament went as planned and with this we came to an end of another beautiful journey. We headed for Kathmandu and spent a day visiting the local shops buying gifts for friends and family back home.

At the end of this project I can firmly say that I have learned so much more than I could have imagined. These camps made me a better coach and a more responsible one. I really feel I have grown with the project. I started off as a small kid playing rugby and now I’m a Khelo Coach leading 100s of youngsters on their own rugby journeys. Rugby is a part of who I am today and to be able to take this across borders and share it with the children of Nepal has given me immense happiness. I am incredibly grateful to all my teammates for putting together such a successful and impactful Spirit of Rugby adventure.

Cheers to Khelo Rugby – you can watch a short movie of our Himalayan rugby odyssey here – enjoy!

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Rugby Tackles Gender Inequality

Khelo Rugby’s new Project Manager writes about her experiences in organising our Day of the Girl Tournament and how gender inclusion is an important part of combatting gender inequality. 

by Nidhi Ghelani

When I see the girls from across our Khelo communities’ play and lead training sessions I realise that the only thing holding young girls back is the lack of opportunity and a platform to showcase their talents. A young girl encouraging her team to play better during an inter-community match got me thinking whether the most pressing issue to be addressed today is “gender equality” or “gender inclusion”. Our minds are so trained to think of gender roles in a stereotypical manner that we forget the very essence of equality.

Here, at Khelo Rugby we believe that sports is an excellent medium to accelerate gender inclusion and foster gender equality among both girls and boys. Rugby as a sport has a place for everyone on the team. Hence, rugby teaches us that irrespective of size, weight and height what is important is the zeal to play and the passion to excel.

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Character traits like passion, competence, sportsmanship, discipline are essential in every athlete and have no gender bias. They are not gendered or stereotyped. This is the beauty of sport, it does not discriminate based on gender, race, religion, or caste.  The only limitations are the ones we introduce when we say “rugby is a men’s sport” or “girls should not play contact sports like rugby”.

We often feel that educating girls will empower them.  Or just by making them aware of their rights and responsibilities, we can promote a more gender neutral society. However this is only half the picture. What needs to be addressed simultaneously is to sensitize the boys and men around us, which will help us nurture the sapling of equality we plant in the mind and heart of each individual.

The International Day of the Girl is to mark the plight and gather support for young girls across the globe who are subjected to gender based discrimination and violence. We at Khelo have joined hands in this initiative to make a more gender fair society by helping and supporting young girls to break down barriers and emerge as heroes. We undertook the mammoth challenge of organising an U-14 Tag Tournament, where 240 young, motivated, and extremely talented girls from over 20 Indian communities were out on the field enjoying rugby. Our team of 4 coaches and over 45 Young leaders spent their days training girls from various communities and delivering the theme of gender equality through fun games and open discussions. These lessons are one of the tenants from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals which we have adopted in Khelo.

Socially enforced gender roles are so deeply embedded in our culture that  discrimination has become normalized and accepted. Young girls from underprivileged communities have often seen their mothers, sisters and other women of the family being subjected to gender based discrimination which they have accepted in their very own lives. It was enthralling to see so many girls out on the field, free from any stereotypical bias making their presence felt and voice heard.

When we talk about gender equality we must also talk about gender inclusion which means that both girls and boys get the opportunity to participate equally. The tournament was planned, organised and executed by the girl young leaders. It was an opportunity given to them to showcase their skills and also a learning opportunity to prepare themselves to deal with bigger challenges life will eventually throw at them.

What life has to offer and what we make of these offers is what shapes our personality. There are times when life throws a curve-ball at us, we either duck or face it with determination and smash a home run. Well, the society today under the facade of liberty and liberalization still breeds gender based discrimination which trickles into the life of these young girls impacting their personality. Sports on the other hand can free them from this cage giving them a more bias free platform to showcase their skills and nurture their passion. It is motivating to see girls who have been a part of Khelo Rugby participate in various state and national level tournaments, making their family, community, organization and nation proud. That what we mean by ‘Growing Up With Rugby.’

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When sport does not discriminate why should we? Sports impacts the lives of players deeper than we can imagine. Hence, for girls who hardly get to see or explore the avenues which lead to self-growth and development this exposure adds a brick to their ever growing palace of dreams and ambitions.

To play a full contact sport like rugby is a barrier many girls have to overcome.  From wearing shorts, to playing in front of an audience, the cultural taboos on women are many. A very important lesson we learn from rugby is to get back up after being knocked down. Many dreams and ambitions are laughed upon and ridiculed when these girls share them with their family and friends… nevertheless they learn to strike back with more determination and zeal. Girls across the globe are fighting various gender biases, and sports provides them a chance to not just free themselves from this but also train their mind and body to become stronger and sharper as they grow.

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Here in Khelo, girls are no less than boys. The roles and responsibilities are given not based on gender but capability and talent. It’s not easy to break free from the shackles of stereotypical thinking but as an organization working with disadvantaged and underprivileged children we try our best to instil among our children the concept of a gender fair society. We see girls and boys adopt the values of rugby in their daily lives leading better  and more fulfilling lives. I’m a strong believer that girls can bring about social change at every level. As daughters, sisters, and mothers… women are god gifted with the task of passing on values and building strong value systems. Khelo through various theme based activities and fun games tries to address these issues in a manner which the children enjoy and learn from as well.

‘Women are genetically stronger” says science. “Women are entrusted the responsibility of being primary caregivers and nurturing a new life” says the society. If women are considered so powerful both through mind and body, why hold them back with stereotyped gender roles and biases? This paradox is prevalent everywhere. Khelo makes active efforts to free young talented girls, giving them opportunities and the right exposure to broaden their horizons.

To build something new the old must sometimes be brought down. To create a more gender fair society we must work together towards including more and more girls and women in every part of community life. What we need today is not projects for them but projects by them. The solution to gender inequality is gender inclusion. Here at Khelo we train girls and boys to grow up together, making each other stronger.

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Jungle Crows and Maharastra Women’s Team after their Bronze Medal Match, All India Oct 2017 

We in the Jungle!

Originally published on his own blog “Off-Season”, Harry A Johnson is a Watson Fellow scouring the world for the most innovative uses of sports as a vehicle for social change. Here he writes about his experiences visiting Saraswatipur for our Kichad Rugby Festival.

By Harry A Johnson Jnr

Some may argue this point, but to my knowledge, the POLYTECH High School Boys Basketball team from 2009-2013 has to be the most dominant team of all time in the Henlopen conference. During my four years at POLYTECH, we did not lose a single game in our division –completing a streak of 65 straight games– and only lost two games in the conference over my three years as a starter (go ahead and correct me if I’m wrong). Our team’s mantra quickly became “We in the JUNGLE!!,” describing our high speed, in your face style of basketball that suffocated other teams. Less than one day after arriving in India, I was once again in the jungle. However, this time I was on a rugby field surrounded by trees standing 100 feet tall and the under constant threat of elephant attacks. More surprisingly, I felt right at home.

The first program that I am exploring here in Kolkata, India is Khelo Rugby. This sports-based social development initiative uses rugby as a vehicle to counter a number of social issues (ie. poverty, homelessness, lack of access to education) and works to ensure that Indian youth grow up with the best of opportunities (a more in-depth review of the program will come soon). The program works in over 45 communities throughout India. During my first 24 hours here I got to accompany the program on a trip to Saraswatipur, a group of villages in Siliguri — a small town in the jungle foothills of the Himalayan Mountains.

About Khelo and Saraswatipur: 

Saraswatipur is a tea estate made up of a cluster of 4 villages. The lives of children growing-up in these villages are embedded in the larger context of life as a tea garden worker. This is because more than 90% of the people have Adivasi tribal backgrounds meaning they were brought in as indentured labourers to work in the tea gardens at the start of the century. The villagers live in basic conditions, make meager wages (85 rupees/day= $1.33/ day), have limited access to the outside world and a lack of employment opportunities beyond the tea garden. In addition, the village is plagued by rampant alcoholism, illiteracy, lack of schooling, poor sanitation practices, lack of safe drinking water, oppression by Tea Garden owners and the constant threat of wild animal attacks (e.g., elephants, leopards).

Damage from an elephant attack

Khelo Rugby began in Saraswatipur in March 2013. Since then, Khelo has trained more than 500 children in the sport of rugby. Along with rugby training, Khelo has conducted youth development camps, provided various sports-based opportunities (e.g. participating in Rugby tours and Rugby tournaments organized in India), secondary school scholarships, and work opportunities. The program has 26 children from Saraswatipur in the Khelo Scholarship program and 4 former players (2 girls; 2 boys) are currently working with Decathlon, an international sports brand.

Khelo took a unique approach to developing the program in Saraswatipur. When Khelo first arrived, the program purposefully introduced the sport of rugby as a “girls sport” so that parents would not exclude their daughters from participating. Four years later, it is evident that Khelo’s deception was actually a self-fulfilling prophecy. The girls from this small practically unknown village have dominated girl’s rugby throughout the entire country of India. These are some of the Saraswatipur Leopards (Girls team) accolades:

  • U-18 All-India Nationals 2nd Place (Runner-Up)

  • September 2016 All India Senior Nationals 3rd Place (Plate Winners)

  • August 2016 All India Georgiadi International 7’s 1st Place (Winners)

  • August 2016 All India Senior National 7’s 3 rd Place (Plate Winners)

  • May 2016 U-18 All India National 7’s 2 nd Place (Runner-Up)

  • 6th Place (Leopards Boys team)

  • January 2016 West Bengal State 7’s 1 st Place (Winners)

  • September 2015 Junior All India Nationals 1 st Place (Winners)

  • July 2015 All India National Rugby 7’s 2 nd Place (Runner-Up)

  • June 2015 Calcutta Rugby Tournament 1st Place (Winners)

  • February 2015 National Games, Kerala Entire Bengal team comprised of Saraswatipur Leopards

  • November 2014 U-18 All India Nationals 2 nd Place (Runner-Up)

This past summer 5 girls from Saraswatipur were selected to the U18 Indian national team which participated in the 2017 Paris World Games and another four girls were selected to the U20 Indian national team which played in the Asia U20 rugby tournament. More importantly 3 players have gone on to college and to the programs knowledge they are the first three in what may be centuries. Khelo’s work continues to expand as the program is currently fundraising to build a youth center in the village.

Above is a short documentary on one of the girls from Saraswatipur who played on the India national team

My Experience: Saraswatipur Rugby Festival

The focus of my trip to Saraswatipur was to help in the coordination and execution of a rugby tournament for kids aged 14 and under. The tournament was then followed by a cultural celebration in honor of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This quickly turned into a cultural exchange between the people of Saraswatipur and myself. As I walked around the town, I was met with unapologetic stares that did not seem to cease over my stay. Although I was taken aback by the attention, I slowly realized the stares were a sign of interest and curiosity. It was hard to communicate with many of the villagers because they have their own language which is a mixture of Bengali, Nepali, Hindi, Bihari. Anyone born outside this village will struggle to follow this mix. Fortunately, some of the villagers knew a small amount of English. (English is known throughout India because it is the language of government, law and medicine.) As I engaged with those around the town, it was evident that the beauty of the landscape was a reflection of the people of the land. I felt at home as I was welcomed into home after home, chased around by small children and shook well over 200 hands during my three day visit.

The tournament went on without a hitch. Over 335 children from Saraswatipur and neighboring tea estates participated in the tournament and both first and second place teams were honored with live chickens. Paul Walsh (Director of Khelo Rugby), Brian Wolf (Bard Graduate and former member of the Khelo Rugby team) and I were surprisingly honored as chief guest in the cultural festival following the tournament. The villagers packed a Shamiana (bamboo built structure to house the event) that the youth built the day before and we enjoyed a display of the cultural roots of Saraswatipur. Four days into my trip I was asked to speak in front of a crowd of over 300 villagers. Looking back, it is amazing that I wasn’t at a loss of words. I stood up and told the people they embodied the  foundation of the trip I had just barely begun. Their village was a prime example of the power of sports, and their ability to combat social ills with century-old roots, increase access to opportunity, and change both individual lives and the world at-large. To conclude the ceremony, the Chief minister of the region stood before us and thanked Paul Walsh and Khelo rugby for “Bringing opportunity to their village.” I looked over at Paul and chuckled thinking all of this came from a simple introduction to a “girls sport;” Rugby.