Why it sucks to play sport and be a girl

Updated: Jul 21, 2019, 08:58 IST | Jane Borges

Dangal's inspiration is all very well, but women continue to face prejudice, harassment and lack of opportunity in Indian sports. A 17-year-old Mumbai athlete's short film sifts through girl rights PR to tell the truth

Why it sucks to play sport and be a girl
National and state-level athletes Apoorva Pawar, Kiana Mehta, Seher Patel and Naia Moutounet flank Nandita Anand (in blue), who quit the sport over three years ago and is behind the 9-minute short, Ready Set Girl. Pic/ Ashish Raje

The October of last year brings back bitter memories for 17-year-old national-level athlete Apoorva Pawar. An FYBCom student at HR College, Pawar, who was participating at the West Zone Nationals, had attended the opening ceremony in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, where some of the athletes, including her, were to receive medals for the 100m races (in the under-14 and under-20 categories) that had taken place earlier. "But, while the ceremony was on, we were told that the chief guests, all of whom were key dignitaries in Raipur, would only give out medals to the boys,"

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recalls Pawar, who bagged a silver in the 100m. "We were shocked, and threw a fit. To assuage us, they called us backstage, and gave us the medals in our hands. But, we had earned it, just like anybody else. Was the podium only for the boys?" she asks, when we meet her, on a weekday evening, during a training session at the Mumbai University Ground in Marine Lines. "I have never faced this, but I can believe that these things happen," 16-year-old fellow sprinter Kiana Mehta adds, when Pawar relays the incident. The duo is among 10 female sportspersons, featured in 17-year-old Mumbai-girl Nandita Anand's nine minute-short, Ready Set Girl, which explores what it takes to be a young woman in sports.

Mumbai Sportsperson
Nandita Anand's (in blue) nine minute-short, Ready Set Girl, has already been seen by many of Mumbai's sportspersons. A state-level sprinter, Anand quit sports three years ago because of asthma. Pic /Ashish Raje

Anand, a self-taught filmmaker, currently studying at Hill Spring International School in Tardeo, is a state-level sprinter herself—she ran 100 and 200m while in school. She quit sports three years ago, because she had stopped enjoying it as much. "I had asthma, and would get really stressed before the races; I did not quite like that anxiety," she says. Anand, instead, chose to hone her filmmaking skills, and her talent is visible on her YouTube page too, where she has posted nearly 25 videos. "As a summer project this year, I decided to take up something more serious," she says. "I figured it had to be athletics, because firstly, it's something I feel strongly about, and secondly, coming from an all girl's school [JB Petit High School for Girls, Fort], where feminism is the norm, I thought it was important to talk about certain issues that concern us."

The documentary, while highlighting the encouraging participation by girls in athletics, also spells out the reasons why many find it difficult to stick on, dropping out before the age of 17. This, however, isn't endemic to India alone.

In 2016, after 25 years of research, Women's Sports Foundation—founded by American tennis player Billie Jean King—had stated that by age 14, many girls were dropping out of sports at two times the rate of boys. In the same year, a study conducted by the International Centre For Research and Women (ICRW) in Dholpur, Rajasthan, pointed out that when girls were asked whether they play sports, 54 per cent between ages 12 and 14, said yes. This percentage declined to 30 among girls aged 15-16. While globally, the reasons range from lack of opportunities, poor safety and transport issues, social stigma and gender bias, in India the very same problems get amplified.

Unfair treatment?

Ready Set Girl Still
A still from the film Ready Set Girl. Pic courtesy/ Nandita Anand, YouTube

Pawar has lived and breathed athletics for nearly 10 years. This is part of her identity, she says. "I didn't spend all that time for nothing." Yet, she has now decided to quit competing professionally, in order to focus on studying to become a chartered accountant. "I will continue training, but I don't see a future," she says, despite accruing innumerable medals. The wide wage-gap when compared to male sportspersons, means that she'd rather pursue a career, where job security and pay is guaranteed.

Seher Patel, another national-level athlete who featured in the documentary and is a Class XII student at The Cathedral And John Connon School, Fort, doesn't have plans to quit anytime soon. But, the future, she says, is uncertain. "It all depends on how the next few years pan out—whether I get selected for the Asian Games or Commonwealth. I am hoping to do my best, but athletics is very competitive as a sport," she says, adding that unfortunately, on most occasions, she finds herself on her own.

Patel explains that while at the school level at least, the opportunities for girls are on par with the boys, as they get older, the participation by girls drops significantly, due to which opportunities shrink, too. "Last weekend, I was representing my school in the U-19 800m race, organised by the Bombay City District Amateur Athletics Association, and I was the only participant. It's really no fun," she says. The scope for competition then, hardly ever arises.

The abysmal facilities are a bigger disincentive. "Once, when I had gone for a national-level event, we had a pit in the name of a bathroom and a tent to cover it, with sanitary pads lying all around," remembers Patel. "In Mumbai, in fact, there is a ground in Kandivli, where there are no doors to the women's toilet," adds Pawar.

Jemimah Rodgrigues
Indian cricketer Jemimah Rodrigues, who has played hockey for Mumbai U-19 and state U-17, recalls an incident when travelling for a tournament by train, "Eighteen of us had to squeeze into five seats along with kit bags"

Indian cricket all-rounder Jemimah Rodrigues, who also played hockey for Mumbai U-19 and Maharashtra U-17 and had to take the tough decision to switch to cricket because she did better at it, feels that sometimes the nature of the sport determines the treatment the sportsperson receives. "Some years ago, when we were travelling for a hockey tournament by train, 18 of us had to squeeze into five confirmed seats along with our kit bags. During district matches too, we would stay in classrooms with poor toilet facilities. It was very difficult for us, but we'd still do it, because of our love for the game. Cricketers, on the other hand, get better facilities."

Mehta, who studies at Jai Hind, feels that "clothing" is also a major issue that sports authorities need to address. "Women should be allowed to wear whatever they are comfortable in when running, so that they aren't conscious of themselves." "Even in a city like Mumbai, you get stared at all the time," adds district-level 16-year-old sprinter Naia Moutounet, who will continue to train in Paris, when she leaves later this year.

Gulshan Ansari
Football coach Gulafsha Ansari, 22, who rose to fame after participating at the 2010 FIFA World Cup's Football for Hope says she’d often be taunted for wearing shorts by neighbours. Had it not been for support from her mom, pursuing the sport would have been tough

Footballer and coach Gulafsha Ansari, 22, the Dharavi star, who rose to fame after participating at the 2010 FIFA World Cup's Football for Hope, remembers being at the receiving end of taunts by her neighbours, for wearing shorts. "As a Muslim girl, I faced a lot of stigma.

Fortunately, my mother supported me. She said, I could play in shorts, but only in the field and not outside."

Chain reaction

Former India hockey player Happy Phul Mann, 54, says that she relates with most of the concerns raised in the documentary. "The district and state-level hockey tournaments for school girls in Mumbai are very haphazard and chaotic. What we have observed at the district-level games in particular, is that they try to wrap up the entire tournament in just two days, finishing a game in ten minutes flat. Fortunately, state-level games have become slightly organised." But, the foundation, she explains, is weak.

New rules at the college level have further uprooted good talent, says Mann. "Earlier, post Class X, students could apply to colleges under the sports quota. Now, they all have to apply in the open category. So, students playing a team sport get thrown to different colleges. Sometimes, those playing individual sports, also don't find patronage in the college where they take admission."

Until a few years ago, there was a three per cent quota for students winning first or second position at district-, state-, and national-level sports. This was dicontinued two years ago.

Henry Menezes
Henry Menezes, CEO at the Western India Football Association

Henry Menezes, CEO at the Western India Football Association, feels that women sports has always been given step-motherly treatment. "Unless you play for India, you don't enjoy five-star luxuries. But, how else can you make any sport attractive?" he asks. The lack of professional events, only leaves many of the female sportspersons disillusioned, Menezes says. "In a 12-month calendar, you need to have at least 40 to 50 matches for the footballers to improve their skill and technique. But, girls don't end up playing more than 10-15 matches a year."

Hockey is faring far worse, says Mann, who also umpired for the Asian Games in 1986 and 1990. Apart from the events organised by the Mumbai School Sports Association (MSSA), Mann says that the current number of local tournaments stand at "zero". "As per the rule, there has to be a 60:40 ratio of men:women in any body controlling a sport. The hockey body [Mumbai Hockey Association] in Mumbai doesn't have a single woman. Our argument then, is that they should at least do something for women's sport. At present, besides a few tournaments organised privately, there is nothing for our hockey players. The junior and women's league, popular in the 1980s, and the Bombay Gold Cup for women, don't happen anymore."

Joshua Lewis, CEO of the Kenkre Football Club, says that the lack of opportunities and exposure, has kept the participation of women to a bare minimum. Despite running the club for the last 20 years, Lewis only gets around 40 girls/women, for every thousand male participants. "The filtration process [of sportspersons dropping out young] is not a gender specific issue. It is only highly visible in women sports, because they are significantly lesser in number."

The way forward

With the FIFA U-17 Women's Football World Cup, scheduled for 2020—Mumbai is likely to be one of the venues—there will be greater visibility for the sport, says Lewis. "Seeing is believing. Watching that level of commitment translate on field will motivate a lot of young girls to take up the sport." His club will also be starting an age-specific serious programme for girls aspiring to be footballers, where they will have a dedicated coach training them throughout the year, with all amenities being provided. "We have had this programme for boys for the last 19 years, but we never had enough female participants to extend it to them. Around 25 girls have finally shown interest. The wave has begun; I feel opportunities will come up, if we nurture this talent."

Happy Phulmann
Former India hockey player Happy Phul Mann says organisers of district-level games wrap up entire tournaments in just two days. Pic /Ashish Raje

Menezes says encouraging "club culture" in all sports could also help draw more participation from women. "You have to start creating more and more opportunities at every level for them. You also need to be flexible. In smaller towns, parents are hesitant to have their daughters play, because they don't want them to wear shorts. We said, 'Bas shoes hona chahiye, kaunse bhi avatar main khelo'. That's how you motivate them. Around five years ago, we had the Maha Yudh, and 21,000 students came out to play, many of them were young girls, who were playing in salwaar kameez."

There is also a need to expand the scope of one's sporting career, not limiting it to playing on the field, says Menezes. WIFA was the first to introduce the D-licence in 2011, which allows footballers to become coaches, as young as 18. The licence is recognised by the All India Football Federation. "We have around 100 plus women who have got their licence from us. This has opened up employment opportunities for them. Some are earning Rs 40,000-Rs 50,000 per month," he said.

From his own experience, Ravi Bagdi, secretary of MSSA's athletics wing, feels that women athletes are far more disciplined and result-oriented than men. "Indian women are doing extremely well in Olympics sports; Dutee Chand and Hima Das are the best example. Because of these sporting heroines, the awareness has increased across Maharashtra, and so has the representation," he says. Bagdi disagrees with the idea that there aren't enough opportunities for girls. "We have the same number of events for boys as we have for girls. I think, it is academic pressure that is causing many of them to leave the game. The need of the hour is to open the sporting platform, where students, both boys and girls, can specialise in sport-related disciplines like sports science, psychology, nutrition and physiotherapy. Nobody can do this better than a sportsperson."

The no. of female footballers for every 1,000 male participants that Joshua Lewis, CEO of the Kenkre Football Club, gets

Maximum no. of matches female football players get to play in a year compared to the minimum of 40 that they need to improve their skills

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