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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Girls Power On

Parents should encourage their daughters to play rugby!

by Peter Fernandes

I was in one of our Khelo Rugby communities in Kolkata recently and heard a parent remark, “I would not let my girl play sports and rugby is out of the question because it is one the most dangerous sports in the world”. Working as I do for the Jungle Crows and having lived in the rugby crazy nation of New Zealand where young 5-6 year old girls turn up for weekly rugby training these words spoken by a parent left me hurting. And wanting to set them right!

The words echoed in my head and gave me a much clearer insight into the real life discrimination young girls face on a daily basis. Gender inequality is very prevalent here in India so I know that the work we do at Khelo Rugby to get more girls playing is very important and makes a difference. We know that with a properly trained coach to conduct training sessions, teaching the right tackling techniques, using the proper equipment, playing on a good field, using a safe and convenient location, rugby can be enjoyed equally by both boys and girls. The physical nature of the sport does raise concerns in the minds of parents and guardians which is why we work diligently  to play safely.

Talking to the coaches of Khelo Rugby about how the sport has been taken up by girls, the replies by most are all inclined towards the belief I have – girls love sports and rugby is no exception. They love the fact that rugby is challenging, tough and sometimes of a full contact nature. In short, they love rugby!

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Some of the slogans from our #DayoftheGirl tournament

Working with these girls who have no issues playing, the onus now moves on to the parents. It can be a tough task no doubt, but we know that if we can make a young girl attend our programme she’ll like it, and will in turn create better awareness of the importance of sport in her family. She will also convince her other friends in her local community to play and participate and that is always rewarding.

India as a country has a history of physical full contact sports which are quite popular like Pehlwani or Kushti (wrestling), Kabaddi and lesser known sports like Inbuan (combat wrestling in Mizoram), Yubi Lakpi (Manipur form of rugby). What is ubiquitous in most of the full contact sports is the minimal presence of girls or women actively participating. If we want to empower and bring about a change in society we all need to do our part by actively involving girls in sports.

To further this active participation we organised our own #DayoftheGirl rugby tournament on 23 October for our Khelo Rugby girls. We also made October our month of gender equality. 237 girls in 20 teams took part in the tournament and it was incredible to see. The girls played tag which means good skills, running and evasion.

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#DayoftheGirl 23 October on Crow Field

It was also inspiring to see recently the first women’s 15-a-side rugby matches played in India during the annual All India rugby tournament. We were delighted that our Jungle Crows team was almost fully made up of Khelo Rugby graduates. At Khelo we wish to create a lifelong love for sport and rugby in every child that we work with.

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Jungle Crows and CCFC teams at All India

I love that there is a place for everyone in rugby – if you are solid and powerful, there is the front row position for you. If you are tall and strong, you’re a good fit for the lock position. If you are fast and tough, there is flanker’s position for you. If you are quick, resilient and have crazy endurance, we have the whole back line positions for you. Whether you are 4ft or 6ft tall, whether you weigh 50kgs or 100kgs, you can be a part of a rugby team.

For me I think the following seven reasons should convince parents and guardians why they should encourage their daughters to play rugby, I hope you’d agree and please do share your own ideas:

1. Our girls learn to be strong and that the body has immense power.

Rugby is physically tough, challenging and being a full contact sport takes a toll on the person’s body. I had read an anecdote that football is a sport where players pretend to be hurt for 90mins and Rugby is a sport where players pretend not to be hurt for 80mins. Playing Rugby will make a girl feel strong. If she loves the sport and wants to be part of a rugby club like the Jungle Crows, she will have to put in the effort to become stronger physically and mentally. By playing rugby, she will get faster; her body will become more agile and strong. Along the course of learning the right tackling techniques, getting tackled the right way, getting into a ruck or maul, getting into a scrum, she will soon begin to realize the fact that her body has immense power and that she has every capability of playing a full contact sport and to be good at it. The ability to push your body and mind to the limit is a powerful accomplishment.

2. Our girls learn the importance of teamwork and trusting other people.

A girl who plays rugby will understand that she will have to put her body on the line and trust in her team mates. She will tackle someone, she will run, get tackled, ruck, will get up, run again, hit someone again, ruck again, run some more. Sometimes there will be a scrum and a tangled mess of body parts, she will get up and do it all again. It will go on for 80 long minutes. But at the end of every match, she will feel re-energized and mentally fulfilled because she was there for her team mates and her team mates were there for her. Her trust in people around her will increase and being a good hard working team mate, she will be equally trustworthy. She will learn that regardless of how talented and good a player she is, without the dedicated efforts of her team mates, she cannot win the match. She will have to learn to trust and be trustworthy herself, that’s the only way her team will compete.

3. Our girls learn that they are capable of doing anything that the boys can.

Rugby being a full contact physical sport is a very good opportunity to promote gender equality. Girls are tough too, both physically and mentally. What one must understand that a girl playing rugby is only going to be tackling and getting tackled by other girls. It is a fair and integral part of the game. By playing rugby, she will become more confident and have more self-belief in her abilities. I had a hostel manager back when I was working in New Zealand who was a volunteer community rugby coach. Every time a girl would approach her for medication for minor injuries, cuts or bruises, she had this very catchy phrase, “toughen up princess, stop whining like a little boy”. Our girls through rugby will learn that they are capable of doing anything. She will understand that she is quite unstoppable when she puts her mind and body into achieving a goal.

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Jungle Crows v YRC in India’s first women’s 15-a-side game

4. Our girls learn how to get back up after being knocked down.

There are numerous times in life, when it will seem like you are completely knocked down and have no energy to move forward. A rugby player who gets knocked down in life will have the mental strength to push hard and keep moving forward. In the 80 mins of a rugby match, players gets knocked down, fall to the ground but always get back up and continue moving forward. What one learns on the field is probably the biggest life lesson of all. A girl who puts in her hard work and is persistent in her training sessions will in most likelihood achieve the desired success. She will also gather the mental strength needed to face this world and live a fulfilling life. She will learn to accept defeats graciously and celebrate victories in full.

5. Our girls have a lot of respect for others.

The sport of rugby is more inclusive than most sports that exist in the world. A person of every body shape and size can find a position on the rugby field. For a girl, this can be very uplifting as her body shape or size will not affect her opportunity to play. She will learn to respect her team mates and her opponents who will in most likelihood be far more different physically then her. She will learn to accept different type of people and still play together as a team. She will learn that once she gets tackled, her teammates are there to support her. She will learn to obey the rules of game, respect the referee’s decision, and respect her coaches.

6. Our girls learn to be great ambassadors for the values of rugby throughout life.

Girls are the best ambassadors to carry the values of rugby into the life of their families. I like this set of values: teamwork, discipline, enjoyment, respect and sportsmanship – essential life values. These values when taught in a cohesive environment to the girls on a rugby field can be passed down for generations. Girls are excellent communicators and the real change makers of society. Rugby needs good ambassadors and girls are the perfect ambassadors for the sport worldwide.

7. Our girls learn the importance of hard work and develop a sense of pride.

“Wait, what? You play rugby??” will be a question that she will learn to enjoy the most in her life. It will instill a sense of pride in her because she will be among just the 1% of the girls in India that play rugby. Rugby requires sincere dedication, sacrifice and a lot of hard work to get good at it. The girls that venture into rugby will learn how important it is to work hard in life to achieve a goal and that there are no shortcuts to success. Given the right motivation, she will continue to strive to achieve more her whole life.

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