Empower Girls in India Through Sports

by CREA
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
Empower Girls in India Through Sports
MMS trainers facilitating the discussion
MMS trainers facilitating the discussion

Kripa (name changed) is an It’s My Body (IMB) program participant who now works as a trainer with Mahila Mukti Sansthan (MMS), one of the organizations that implement IMB. The IMB program advances sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), builds knowledge and understanding on issues around gender and sexuality, and builds leadership and life skills of young women and girls using curriculum-based learning and sports.

One of the most significant initiatives taken by CREA to ensure sustainable change in our communities was to mark 16 Days of Activism in 2021 by launching a campaign titled “Your Protection Doesn’t Protect Me”. An event planned for the campaign was an engagement with the local news channels and the print media. The objective was to begin a conversation about different issues and representation in the news and the implication for people reading them. Kripa played a critical role in carrying out an engaging dialogue with the attending media representatives. 

One of the many discussions at the event was about mainstream media’s portrayal of short clothing as a possible cause for rape. When trainers explained this was not true and in fact harmful, few of the participants questioned the legitimacy of the claim by asking if the trainer’s argument was supported by law. The trainer responded that while the law never connects clothing to sexual abuse, the constitution protects the rights of a person to wear anything. They also presented the factual argument of how, if clothing affected sexual abuse occurrence, children would never suffer from sexual abuse or harassment. 

The trainers, including Kripa, focused on the unequal power structures and their role in inciting violence. In another attempt, one of the participants compared a new mobile phone covered for protection, to protect women and girls by avoiding short clothes. The trainers responded by condemning the comparison and asking why the same rule doesn’t apply to men, who are culturally and socially accepted to bathe in public. This was concurred by a few participants, adding that the confusion and bias arose because of the way that the current social structures have shaped their perspectives. More discussions came around the notion of women being women's worst enemy, to which the trainers responded by again focusing on the role of power in these exchanges that imitate or come out of patriarchy. 

Some participants also shared hope over the positive trend of women getting empowered through education. The trainers replied that while it is a celebratory thing, there is still a lack of freedom for young women to pursue higher education. Poverty and poor economic conditions push many young women to drop out of school and fall into early and forced marriage. This power is also exercised by the families where they restrict the mobility of young women on the basis of financial control. The trainers also talked about young women having minimal to no access to sexual and reproductive health services because of this power dynamics. An example was presented of Adolescents Friendly Health Clinics (ARSH), an important component of Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (National Adolescent Health Program) that hasn’t been able to function to its best capacity and ability due to lack of trained nurses. Unfortunately, many participants did not even know about the clinic. 

It is important to note that questions coming from participants, who are engaged in the media, are representative of the patriarchal narrative built around SRHR, gender-based violence, and women’s rights. They do not reflect an individual’s bias. It was important to not tackle the questions in an accusatory manner; the trainers, including Kripa, responded to each question by developing a healthy dialogue and unpacking the issues with care. While there were definite pushbacks during the conversations, the participants ended up requesting MMS to continue to organize similar discussion events for them and their colleagues, so that more people could develop a nuanced understanding of gender and sexuality. 

Participants asking questions to the panel
Participants asking questions to the panel
MMS's event featured on a local paper: Azad Sipahi
MMS's event featured on a local paper: Azad Sipahi

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IMB participant girls with the government official
IMB participant girls with the government official

Gramonnati Sansthan has been one of CREA’s co-implementing partners for the It’s My Body (IMB) program in Uttar Pradesh (UP) for the past ten years. The IMB program advances sexual and reproductive health and rights, build knowledge and understanding on issues around gender and sexuality, and builds leadership and life skills of young women and girls using curriculum-based learning and sports.

In October 2021, the UP-based partner organized a three-day sports camp for girls and young women between 12-19 years, where the girls played football and discussed issues around gender and sexuality, and bodily autonomy. Being the first sports camp, especially after the lifting of lockdown and some ease in the COVID-19 rules, girls from different villages shared the excitement of playing football and engaging with each other creating an interactive platform. 

On the first day, the District Collector (Indian Administrative Service officer who is in charge of a district) of the Mahoba district visited the stadium and met with the participating girls. At this meeting, the IMB trainers and girls shared about the It’s My Body Program and the role of football in understanding and practice of gender and sexuality, bodily autonomy, and access to public spaces. While there are playgrounds in the villages that the participants come from, they explained how those are primarily occupied by young boys and men. The participating girls thus shared their demand and need for separate playgrounds for their access. This request was well received by the District Collector, who then asked for a formal application. After the three days of Sports Camp, the Gramonnati Sansthan team, along with a few young women leaders, visited the district collectorate office and submitted an application requesting a playground for girls and young women in all eight villages, where the IMB program is operational. The request is currently under process. The District Youth Office has instructed the district team to look for available ground in the listed villages and asked the local administration to build this in convergence with the MGNREGA scheme. 

Meanwhile, during the same conversation, the district youth office also connected the organization to Yuwa Mangal Dal (young men’s group) and offered to contribute sports equipment (such as volleyball) for the girls. On the 11th of October, for the international Girl Child Day, the equipment was handed to the IMB participants. Gramonnati Sansthan has further requested the District Administration to convene Yuwati Mangal Dal (young women’s group), where they can have their own government budget and sports equipment.

The case study above is a testament to the fact that girls are right bearers themselves and if given access to spaces and opportunities, they can advocate for their own demands and be change-makers in their community and beyond. The IMB program, hence, affirms and promotes girls’ leadership skills and rights to make informed decisions and to take forward the agenda of girls’ rights, especially related to access to spaces and services.

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1 Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, is Indian labour law and social security measure that aims to guarantee the 'right to work'. 
Yuwa Mangal Dal representative receiving equipment
Yuwa Mangal Dal representative receiving equipment
IMB participants at the sports camp
IMB participants at the sports camp
IMB participants at the sports camp
IMB participants at the sports camp
IMB participants before a match at the sports camp
IMB participants before a match at the sports camp

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Women writing a pro-menstruation slogan
Women writing a pro-menstruation slogan

CREA has been co-implementing the It’s My Body program in Uttar Pradesh Bihar and Jharkhand in India for the past ten years. Over the years, the program has not only capacitated girls in terms of refining their understanding around body, sexuality, and bodily rights, but has also built their leadership largely. Girls, who had been part of the program back from 2012-17, had important roles in the current phase of the program that is being implemented since 2019 with five partner organizations in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. These girls aged 17-19 years, whom we are also addressing as young women, are not only integrating the lens of intersectionality in their understanding of gender and sexuality but also taking up small action projects around gender-based issues and creating ways to advocate for and strategically resolve them as well.

Planning and designing the action projects

Post the pandemic the trainers connected with the young women cohort (17-19-year-old girls) to recap sessions and identify how they can translate the knowledge gained over years of learning into action within their community. At locations where young women are not considered as decision-makers and right bearers, 880 of them were engaged through 40 collectives in translating issues of early and forced marriage, the right to choice, gender-based discrimination, gender-based violence (GBV), and sexual and reproductive health and rights into action projects.

As a part of their engagement, these young women along with the trainers identified some of these underlying issues according to their respective Panchayats. As second steps, in their collectives, they planned ways of how to bring these issues to the attention of the community, stakeholders, and major decision-makers. The collectives adopted various methods some of which were conducting surveys, organising rallies, wall painting, performing street theatre, organising signature campaigns. They included younger girls, mothers, elected women representatives, health service providers, men, young men and boys, teachers to understand, question, and receive opinions about all the previously mentioned issues. These processes not only helped in amplifying the need to articulate the existing issues faced by women and girls but also foresee how young women collectives can play a major role in challenging the regressive social norms.

Advocacy and impact as a part of the action project-

Apart from planning, designing, and executing the action projects, the collectives of young women played great roles in advocating for their rights associated with these issues mentioned above. Some of them advocated for the need for regular sexual and reproductive health services with health service providers. A group of young women raised concerns in front of Panchayat representatives about early and forced marriage and gender-based violence and asked leaders for their support. Another group of young women, who had identified issues of gender-based violence in certain households, strategically painted helpline numbers on their adjacent walls with the help of elected women representatives. Some of the other collectives also saw the results of the action project and its advocacy immediately.

A collective from Gramonnati Sansthan in Mahoba Uttar Pradesh surveyed two groups, one being part of IMB (200 girls) and another (200 girls) not part of the program, and compared the results. They developed survey questions on the right to choice, understanding of gender, gender-based discrimination, and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). They asked whether girls have a right to choose their partner, to decide their marriageable age and other choices they can exercise. The study showed that 85% of girls exposed to the IMB showed assertiveness and confidence in making their choices, knowing about sexual and reproductive health rights, and accessing the same. Amongst the ones not exposed to the program, only 12.5% followed their choice. The rest had no idea about gender, sexuality, gender discrimination, or SRHR. The cohort of young women, who did this study gave out a statement of the results to the district administration, asserting the need for intervention of programs like It's My Body for girls. The district administration promised to support them where they needed, such as encouraging them to seek legal support against incidences of gender-based violence through help desks set up by the district administration (to address GBV) in the police stations.

Usha, the trainer, who was supporting these young women to conduct the action project said, “It was a process where these young women were clearly building their networks, they were examples to the non-IMB girls of how the program had impacted their knowledge, confidence, and decision-making capacity. Also, there are instances, when the chairperson (district administration) has been regularly asking us if these young women are doing fine and if she could support them in any manner. It’s all because of the action project that they have received so much recognition.”

Similarly, a collective of young women in one of the villages of Chatra district, Jharkhand began talking to the girls in the community about their knowledge and access to SRHR. These conversations revealed that a number of girls and women did not always seek medical attention on sexual and reproductive health issues as they felt uncomfortable talking to a male doctor. The young women then advocated for a female doctor, specifically for SRHR issues. The district hospital then appointed a female doctor. Since then, there has been a major increase in the number of girls and women going for consultation visits to the doctor.   

Rani, the trainer of Lok Prerna Kendra, who was supporting these young women said, “The change was visible right from the time the doctor started sitting in the PHC twice a week. Imagine the number of women not seeking medical attention on their menstruation issues, pregnant women not being able to travel to the district hospital for check-ups, our young women resolved all of this by bringing a female doctor so close to the village.”

Leadership and movement building to challenge norms around bodies and sexuality

The impact of action projects was not only visible through the actions taken because of the advocacy work that the young women were doing, but also through various other mediums. It acted like a huge movement that was strengthened through networks. The collectives of young women used their right to express their inner thoughts on the issues of inequality and supported arguments with facts and information, when they questioned the social norms around early and forced marriage, restriction on their mobility, and right to choice. This was also an opportunity to refine their problem-solving skills, enhance their feminist leadership, and take strong steps of advocacy by making the decision-makers accountable. CREA strongly focuses on strengthening feminist leadership. Empowering young women’s leadership through these action projects has proved to be one step closer to ensuring change that is sustainable and consistent. At a time when girls and young women are denied their sexual and reproductive health rights and agency over their own bodies, it is also important to continue building their leadership in more strategic and innovative ways. These leaders will not only increase the assertion towards their own rights and create better channels of accessing them, but also build strong collectives for greater societal change. 

Young women in Gramonnati Sansthan in Mahoba
Young women in Gramonnati Sansthan in Mahoba
Young women in East Singhbhum from YUVA
Young women in East Singhbhum from YUVA
A young woman in Mahoba during survey
A young woman in Mahoba during survey
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Girls in Mahoba in a big event on National girls'
Girls in Mahoba in a big event on National girls'

There is light at the end of every tunnel. The way girls from the It’s My Body (IMB) program navigated through the pandemic opened new ways for them to recreate strategies to collectivize for accessing their rights. One of the significant components of CREA’s IMB program is sports, where girls play football and other sports to assert their bodily autonomy and use it to have a conversation around freedom, mobility, and choice. The COVID-19 lockdown had affected these girls’ lives with increasing control of their families on their mobility and restricting access to sexual and reproductive health services. With the pandemic restricting their opportunity to play sports, girls’ accessibility to public spaces became minimal. After facing these obstacles due to the pandemic, the partners and girls fortified their intentions to repave their implementation paths. These paths were that of re-asserting their rights, re-thinking strategies, and recreating enabling environments. Post the lockdown, our partners from Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh (UP), who resumed monthly curriculum-based sessions(1) with the girls, also gradually decided to restart their sports engagement. 

Community-level big events with girls from the IMB program:

Taking the International Day of the Girl Child (11th October 2020) and India’s National Girl Child Day (24th January 2021) as opportunities, 945 girls across 4 partners in UP and Jharkhand came together to celebrate these large events(2) while taking all precautionary measures to ensure protection against COVID-19. 

After months of restrictions, girls took this post lockdown opportunity to express themselves. They used various art methods to convey the multiple types of stigmas and discrimination they faced during the lockdown. They performed theatre-based activities, sang songs, made posters, and took centre stage to question the restrictions imposed on them and their impacts on their mobility, education, freedom, and choices. Girls also highlighted the incidences of increased early and forced marriages that they had seen during the lockdown, some of which they were also able to stop with the IMB trainers’ support. Most importantly, in all the locations where the IMB partners conducted community-level big events, girls from the program also played sports through football tournaments and kabaddi matches. Following are some of the quotes shared by some of the girls of the IMB program about their experiences of joining the above activities and how those experiences reinstated their self-confidence: 

“It’s so good to be finally getting to the field and kick the football. I feel so free and elated”, said one of the girls in Mahoba, who played football during the big event.

“We were missing all of this. It feels so good to be able to be back with our larger collectives where girls from all the Panchayats (village councils in India)  have come together. I feel I am not alone anymore”, said one of the girls in Chatra, where Lok Prerna Kendra implements the IMB program.

“After a long time, I got a chance to express myself. So much was building inside me. Along with all my friends, I was not allowed to go out, while our brother was allowed to go out. Was the lockdown just for us? Not for the boys? Why were we restricted to the use of mobile phones? We had to fight so much in families to resume going to coaching classes to resume our education!”, said one of the girls in Hazaribagh.

After a long gap, these big events brought together various stakeholders such as the health service providers, block-level and district-level officials, teachers, local politicians, and the girls from the It’s My Body program. Admittedly, the girls had been interacting with health service providers and had a lot of support from elected women representatives in the past to counter incidences of gender-based violence. But it was also necessary that other decision-makers in the administration also get an idea of how and why the girls were affected. 

Action projects by young women from the IMB program:

Another cohort of young women, who are aged between 17-19 years, has also started an interesting engagement. After strengthening the understanding around gender, patriarchy, choice, freedom, and sexual and reproductive health rights, these groups of young women have chosen related thematic issues in their respective areas and are designing short action projects to advocate with the local administration for accessing and strengthening their rights. Some of these persisting gender-based issues, which have been chosen by the cohort, include gender-based violence, gender-based discrimination, consent and desire, sexual and reproductive health rights, the leadership of women and girls. The cohorts have designed various methods to implement projects based on the issues described above. Some of them are conducting comparative studies between girls engaged in IMB and girls not involved in IMB in presenting how the program has developed an understanding amongst girls. Some cohorts are also creating short awareness-based projects by conducting film screening, running signature campaigns, summarizing, which they will present to the local administration. 

This is the first time that the cohort is doing these action projects. The idea behind this is also to make the process of advocacy more participatory along with strengthening the leadership and accountability of young women. The engagement with girls in the IMB program has been an ongoing process, as the partners have been engaged with girls while implementing the new phase of the IMB program since 2019. However, junctures, like community events, have strengthened the enthusiasm of girls. The action project, which is still in process, has also increased girls’ desire to access their rights.

1) Monthly curriculum-based sessions are conducted with groups of girls from 12-16 years of age and are inbuilt in the IMB program. These sessions are based on multiple topics around gender, patriarchy, sexuality, sexual and reproductive health rights and leadership. The curriculums are designed by CREA in consultation with IMB partner organisations. 

2) Big events/large events are inbuilt in the IMB program. The objective of these events is to bring together girls from the IMB program and talk about their sexual and reproductive rights, issues in accessing the same to the major stakeholders. The idea is also to spread the message of consent, the need for the leadership of girls, rights of girls to the larger mass. 

Girls in UP on National Girls' Child Day
Girls in UP on National Girls' Child Day
Stakeholders on National Girls Child Day in UP
Stakeholders on National Girls Child Day in UP
Girls during football match during a big event
Girls during football match during a big event
Young women conducting survey for action project
Young women conducting survey for action project
Girls in Hazaribagh practising
Girls in Hazaribagh practising

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Yuva's socially distanced session at Jharkhand
Yuva's socially distanced session at Jharkhand

A community-based program led by CREA and co-implemented with five partners CBOs[1] in Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh.

It is a matter of fact that the pandemic has hit us all in an unprecedented way, and the most marginalized in society are experiencing the impact of it even more severely. For over a decade, the It’s My Body program has worked towards advancing the sexual and reproductive rights of girls and young women, supporting them as they claim public spaces, gaining more mobility and movement as they engage with sports and other activities. The pandemic has affected this process of change and empowerment as well. 

The villages in India including where we work saw an influx of migrant workers returning from the cities as the pandemic hit and the health and other state systems have not been prepared to take the burden of this influx. Many marginalized communities continue to face a lot of discrimination and violence due to the stigma attached to the spread of coronavirus and particular communities through fake news circulating rampantly. As the girls we work with also come from these communities, they have been facing multiple layers of discrimination, violence, and control. Girls and women also do not have or have selected access to technology and the internet when the whole world is running online, therefore pushing them further away from information, engagement, and even pleasure. 

The trainers due to limited mobility have been in touch with all the girls through phone calls. Despite many challenges, they have been talking to them and helping them in these challenging times. Through the program, a buddy system has been started. The trainers take a check-in with some girls and these girls, further reach out to 5 more friends creating a network of check-in calls. This was done to ensure that as a community, the girls, trainers, and other trainers are there for each other especially to address the issue of Gender-Based Violence, Mental health, and wellbeing in these times. Continuing the work with stakeholders, the trainers also plan and support Frontline workers. They are engaging with leaders, Health Service Providers (HSPs), and workers who have the mobility to physically check-in with some girls who are facing a lot of Gender-Based Violence at home. 

“When will we play again? What about our education? Will we be promoted or will I have to repeat this year? How will we convince our parents if we have to repeat a year?” 
These are some questions which constantly come to our trainers from girls. It has been a struggle for girls to reach and continue their education and the pandemic seems to bring a very difficult time and many questions to their uncertain futures. Menstruation has been one of the major challenges with so much taboo around it and access to pads to even those who can afford to buy sanitary pads. With no time with friends and support systems, the girls also face violence as they navigate their lives in their personal lives. As they dress up or use mobile phones to call their friends or partners, they not only face taunts and violence from their family but even neighbors, labeling her as “the bad girl”. 

 However, the girls are also navigating to enjoy their right to pleasure rightfully. 

 “We decide to meet each other at the vegetable market or near the handpumps, we say at our homes that we are going to get some chores done or fetch water, plan and meet each other...” a girl described her plan to meet her friend as the control over them increases. 

 “Whenever we get the phone, we make funny videos and have fun!” said a girl from Jharkhand.

It is powerful to see the resilience of these young girls and women. Even in these difficult times, they navigate and try and look for multiple ways! That is probably what the program through its politics of making choices and having control over one’s life and agency has constantly emphasized on using sports as a medium which has proven to be a great tool. 

CREA and its partner organizations after the assessment of the COVID -19 situation in communities started engaging with the girls again using specially designed sessions on sports and perspective building. From July/August, IMB trainers started meeting with girls in physical spaces, in smaller groups, by taking all necessary precautions. The response of girls was extraordinary as they joined in huge numbers. Months of lockdown had made it difficult for girls to meet, talk to each other, express their thoughts, anxieties, and wishes. They also faced greater control and discrimination. Wanting to come out of their houses and experience freedom, they grabbed the opportunity to meet, play, talk to each other.       

[1]Lok Prerna Kendra, Hazaribagh and Chatra; Mahila Mukti Sansthan, Hazaribagh; Yuva, at Jamshedpur in Jharkhand Gramonnati Sansthan, Mahoba; Sakar, from Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh

Session at Lok Prerna Kendra, Jharkhand
Session at Lok Prerna Kendra, Jharkhand
Sakar's program at Uttar Pradesh
Sakar's program at Uttar Pradesh
Sakar's program at Bareilly
Sakar's program at Bareilly
Sports Session, Yuva
Sports Session, Yuva
Sakar's program at Uttar Pradesh
Sakar's program at Uttar Pradesh

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CREA

Location: New York - USA
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Project Leader:
Anuradha Chatterji
New York, New York United States
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