Our Girls Day: from Try to Triumph

By Rwitoban Deb, Journalist and Sports Enthusiast

My search for the Kolkata Port Trust field in Taratala last Sunday ended with spotting a bunch of young women armed with caps, whistles, pens and clipboards strutting about with carefree confidence, commanding military-like discipline from a few hundred younger girls.

No, these weren’t seasoned teachers out on a school picnic. This was the under-14 Khelo Rugby tournament – of, by and for girls – to celebrate the UN International Day of the Girl Child on October 11.

The second edition of the tournament saw more than 250 girls from 16 deprived communities congregate from all corners of Kolkata to put the scorching sun to shame with infectious spirit and unwavering enthusiasm.

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“The best thing about this tournament is that it’s been organised by the older girls for the younger ones. The seniors are now coaching the young ones, managing people, making sure the teams follow the rules… these are all valuable life lessons,” said Bruce Bucknell, British Deputy High Commissioner. The British Deputy High Commission was one of the supporters of the event and has been working towards girl empowerment across India.

A group of 50+ young women ranging from the age of 16 to 19, who have now graduated to community leaders, were tasked with organising the tournament. They had meetings before the tournament to divide up the responsibilities, from setting up the tent to organising food for all the players. This really was “A Skilled Girl Force” the 2018 theme of International Girls Day live and in action.

“Jungle Crows started off as a fascination for a few chubby, middle-aged guys but it’s amazing to see how many young women have got involved, it’s really the Spirit of Rugby live and in action!” exclaimed Shaun Kenworthy, chef and Jungle Crows supporter.

Artist and fashion leader Pinky couldn’t recall seeing this many girls play a sport in the city together. “It’s a spectacular sight watching so many girls enjoying themselves and cheering each other on. They all come from underprivileged backgrounds and many don’t even have shoes, but that’s not dampening their spirits one bit!”

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The 16 teams were divided into four groups with the winners of each going on to play for the Cup, the second-placed teams for the Plate and the third-placed teams for the Bowl. The contest ended with Hide Road beating KPT Colony 12-7 in the Cup final, while Jainkunj won the Plate and Sukanta Nagar lifted the Bowl.

Winners and losers though, were only restricted to the scoreboard. There wasn’t a single glum face or any sense of disappointment because most of these girls have fought and won a bigger battle within their family, their neighbourhood and their society, just so that they could even be on the field. The pure rush of adrenaline, the raw emotion and unadulterated joy of playing a sport had been alien to them.

“Only boys were allowed to play and girls weren’t even allowed to talk to them in my neighbourhood,” complained Kanika Mondal, one of the leaders of Salt Lake Dhapa, which was echoed by many around her. And now? “Most boys are terrified of them! Boys leave the field for them or play together with the girls,” laughed Sukumar Hembrom, a senior Jungle Crows men’s player, as he looked on from the sideline.

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The conversation was brought to an abrupt pause as a 10-year-old limped into the tent with a cut on her leg requiring medical assistance. Although visibly in pain and discomfort, she kept calm. While it might have seen many a grown man shed a tear or grimace in pain, this little girl just put on a band-aid and dashed back to the field in seconds. In case one missed the ‘#GirlPower’ on the back of their jerseys, this was it.

Rugby hasn’t just made these girls physically strong, but also mentally tougher. They are now vocal, assertive and unwilling to let patriarchy dictate the Do and Don’t of life.

“I’ve become more confident ever since I started playing rugby. A few years ago, I wasn’t even allowed to leave the house but now I take my own decisions at home. I convinced my parents to let me study commerce in school,” said Siya Shaw, one of the organisers-in-chief.

Ishma Taj too had to grapple with her family before she could do the same to her opponents. “I loved playing everything from badminton to hockey, before Zaffar (Khan of Jungle Crows) introduced me to rugby. But my relatives didn’t like me playing and my parents soon barred me from going out. It took a lot of effort to convince them that since boys and girls come from the same place there’s no reason to treat them differently,” said Ishma, 19, who now coaches 50 girls in Brooklyn, Garden Reach and wants to play rugby for India.

“When we started working in these communities, the biggest deterrent was the families of the girls. Through years of communication, we’ve finally managed to gain their trust. Now, with the senior girls taking up active responsibility of mobilising and training younger girls it’s become slightly easier but there are still plenty of other challenges we need to overcome,” said Harinder Singh, Jungle Crows manager and one of the few men seen motivating the girls from the sidelines.

Till only the other day, they were made to believe that their sole purpose of existence was to get married and raise children. Now, rugby has given these girls a sense of identity, a dare to dream. They’ve seen their seniors play for India and conquer the world. They’ve realised the world is much bigger than they ever imagined it to be, or were allowed to.  They will not settle for nothing. They’ve been in the shadows for far too long. This is their time to shine.

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More Than Just A Try

The empowering change a game can have on a community.

by Ramona Sen, Author and Journalist

The girls from Saraswatipur are disappointed that they couldn’t participate in the Asian Games, the most high-profile tournament for the Indian rugby women’s team. Their hopes were soaring when the team was approved for the preparatory camp and cruelly dashed when the Indian Olympic Association decided to leave rugby out of the final Indian contingent.

“Some of our friends from the other states even left their jobs to come practise for this,” said Swapna Oraon, one of the first from her tiny tea-garden hometown in North Bengal to have taken to rugby.

Her disappointment is understandable. Swapna, Sandhya and many other young girls in Saraswatipur have been given a new lease of life after they discovered rugby. These are girls whose lives had been mapped out since they were tiny tots – scrape through class 10 and get married as soon as possible. Now, with the advent of rugby, marriage is no longer a matter of compulsion; they have the luxury of choice.

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Sandhya and Swapna: disappointed with the Asian Games decision but determined to keep playing

Rugby has put Saraswatipur on the map. “Our village is in the middle of the woods, no one knew it existed. But now we have out-station visitors and many people come to watch us play,” said Sandhya Rai, who attends George College in Sealdah, central Kolkata. She likes the big city, in spite of the serenity she has been used to. “Transport is available so easily in Kolkata. In Saraswatipur, we used to travel a long way to go anywhere and if we didn’t find transport, we would have to cancel plans.”

The game has made the village more cosmopolitan than it could have ever imagined being. Now its young girls wear shorts and dash about a field, like boys, driving the boys to the sidelines. Not that it was a smooth transition from playing doll to playing ball. “My uncle used to constantly tell my mother it was obscene of me to be seen with bare legs. But she’d always tell him to mind his own business,” said Sandhya. The censure isn’t limited only to the older generation, unused to seeing their womenfolk scampering about a sporting field. “Girls my age are married and raising children. They never took to rugby, or they tried and couldn’t play, and now they’re jealous and talk about us behind our backs,” said Sandhya, who is 17.

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Sandhya in action for West Bengal

Do the globe-trotting rugby girls, back from Paris and Singapore, assume that marriage and babies is not for them? Not at all. They like the idea of a boyfriend, preferably an athlete himself, someone who will understand equality. They face no discrimination on the field and don’t think they can ever settle for it in their inter-personal relationships. This, if anything, is the biggest change the game has brought about. For the first time, girls from Saraswatipur can dream of equality. “My husband should never be able to throw his money in my face and tell me I’m dependent on him forever,” articulates Sandhya, firmly. She understands the need to have the wherewithal to make her own life as well as inspire younger girls in the village to follow this not-so-beaten path.

Perhaps there really is something about sport that lends clarity of thought. The girls have learnt to be optimistic but practical about the life that lies before them. Though they’ve grasped an opportunity with all the doggedness of a forward, they see the struggles awaiting them – of having pinned their life’s ambitions on a game that might receive rejection from governing bodies, of making their peace with defeat at international tournaments “because the other team was bigger and stronger”. And through it all is the will to live a life that makes a difference.

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Swapna breaks through for West Bengal

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