Playing sports made them fearless

Playing sports made them fearless

Plan Indias Safer Cities programme aims to build safe, accountable and inclusive cities, especially for adolescent girls and women The programme...

Plan India’s ‘Safer Cities’ programme aims to build safe, accountable and inclusive cities, especially for adolescent girls and women. The programme strives to increase safety and access to public spaces for women. It is an inclusive programme that involves youngsters of a community to be part of the change.

18-year-old Pooja is one such field person from Mangolpuri, New Delhi, who spoketo journalists during Plan India’s orientation programme. She shared details of their favourite sport of ‘Touch Rugby’ and how that helps in keeping their community safe for women

The bubbly, confident and full of energy, A Pooja (name changed to protect identity) is a sportswoman with a dream to become a global star of ‘Touch Rugby’.She lives with her widowed mother and five siblings in a slum in Mangolpuri. The sport is derived from conventional rugby with the major difference being that players do not tackle each other but instead touch their opponents using their hands on any part of the body, clothing, or the ball.

Her neighbourhood marked by dense population, poverty and high rate of crime comes across as the unlikeliest of destinationsfor the sport of ‘Touch Rugby’ – and that too involving girls in sports gear darting across the field, giving boys a run for their money. It’s totally out of character not just for Pooja’s neighbourhood but capital city, notorious forbeing dangerousto girls and narrowminded social attitude towards them.

‘Touch Rugby’ sport was promoted in Pooja’s community by ‘Plan India’ as part of its “Safer City” programme to build girls’ confidence in negotiating challenging situations they encounter on a daily basis with regard to their safety. Boys and girls play together in mixed teams. Outside sport, they work together as a youth group to address some of the major issues in their community – mostly those that affect girls and their safety.

Harassment is a daily occurrence that girls and women have to put up with, says Jyoti Kandari, local coordinator of the ‘Safer City’ programme, which was launched in the area in 2016. “Building girls’ confidence in dealing with their daily safety challenges is central to our approach and Touch Rugby is very much a part of it.” “We created a group of teenage girls and boys who were interested in the sport and then worked with the local authorities to secure usage of a local stadium.

The stadium itself was in a derelict state and the ground was overgrown. The youth group cleared it all up and now it’s a proper sports facility,” she adds. “Initially parents, particularly girls’ parents, strongly resisted the idea of girls playing sport and especially with boys. However, the youth group - and the girls themselves, convinced their parents. Now we have a solid ‘Touch Rugby’ team which comprises 40 per cent girls.”

This has been nothing short of a miracle in a deeply conservative neighbourhood. Pooja’s mother, Meena,testifies how big a leap this is. She says, “Our neighbours and relatives were highly critical of Pooja playing this sport with boys. They still are. I regularly receive comments from them how my daughter is running around the field in shorts with boys and that I should watch out what she is up to.

I am routinely reminded that I will find it very difficult to get her married and that Pooja is just too confident and outspoken. It’s been very hard for me but I decided that I will stand with my girl and support her in her ambition.” And Pooja has indeed done her mother proud. She has won several medals and is now part of the ‘National Touch Rugby’ squad and shortlisted to represent her country at international tournaments.

“I want to make a career in sport. The last thing I want at this stage in my life is to get married, says Pooja. “I used to be an extremely shy girl and now I am a totally changed person. Other girls in my team have undergone the same transformation. Initially, we used to feel odd speaking to boys, leave alone playing with them. Gradually we just got used to it and realised there was nothing to be afraid of. Just wearing sports shorts and t-shirts was a huge change. It boosted our confidence.”

“Playing sport has empowered me. It has made me fearless. I speak and engage with boys as their equal. I can travel on my own and deal with difficult situations.” “Ifeel confident that I am just as good as anyone, I am second to none. Be confident and believe in yourself is the only message I would like to give to all girls who doubt their potential. I know the change is not easy to achieve, but it’s definitely not impossible.”

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