The Top 3 Reasons Teen Girls in India Aren’t Allowed to Play Sports
Understanding exactly what parents fear helps sports-based non-profit programs balance the playing field
My body hasn’t moved a millimeter in what feels like minutes as I spectate from the sideline of the Maidan, Kolkata’s equivalent of New York City’s Central Park. I’m watching teenage Indian boys and girls playing an athletic match of contact rugby. With years under my belt working in youth sport and life skills development in India, my mind is furiously processing the tremendous effort that must have gone into creating a quality mixed gender, contact sports program in a public park. Most Indian parents don’t want their daughters playing sports, period, let alone in a public park with boys.
As it turns out, these boys and girls are part of a Kolkata-based NGO called Jungle Crows which uses rugby to teach life skills to underserved youth. Akash Balmiki, one of Jungle Crows’ main facilitators, a well-built 21-year-old who captains his club rugby team and has played internationally, stands next to me on the sideline. I start peppering him with questions, “How is it possible you got so many girls to play rugby, a contact sport? And how did you get so many boys and girls playing rugby together?”
Akash tells of going house to house for home visits, first asking for permission for girls to come play in all-girl games and slowly moving to a mixed gender format. “We never start co-ed or contact-tackle. We always do it in steps. First, it’s a girls’ team, then it’s maybe one tournament playing co-ed, then a girls’ team with contact, then co-ed with contact. It’s a step-by-step process. We want everyone to be comfortable.”
I’m in Kolkata for the week facilitating a gender equality workshop and a few of the coaches from Jungle Crows, including Akash, are signed up for the training. In our workshop we discuss the realities of gender and sport in India. It never has to be said that more boys play sport than girls. It’s a given. Instead, we discuss why this is happening. Participants focus on one major reason: boys have more freedom to roam outside the house than girls, especially as the teenage years hit. Many girls, once they get their periods, are expected to stay inside the home and aren’t allowed to hang out with boys. This leads to less girls in sport, even the athletic ones.
So, we discuss strategies to convince parents to let their daughters play, especially after they’ve hit puberty. I ask the participants to sit together in small groups and list the top reasons parents give for not letting their daughters play. Near me I have a large white board on which I’ve drawn three columns with an erasable marker pen. I ask each group to list out their reasons and start populating them into the columns on the board. I write quickly, trying to get everything I’m hearing listed out. I’ve put the reasons into specific columns on the board but only I know why.
Then, I draw a horizontal line across the top of the columns, effectively creating a category header for each column. I turn back towards the group and ask the participants, “Guess which word you’d use to categorize the reasons I’ve listed in column one: playing in a public space, missing curfew, boys around they don’t know, travel to/from practice can be unsafe?” They stare at the board for a minute and then people begin to shout out the correct answer — safety.
I continue, “OK, how about column two: not enough time for studies, should be helping the family instead?” This time they are ready, guessing the answer quickly — priorities.
“And what about column three: mingling with boys, falling in love, wearing sport shorts, getting tan?” For this one, there is silence. I encourage them and one person comes up with the closest answer — what the neighbors will say. I ask them if we can make this more succinct by calling it reputation and they agree. The workshop participants discuss how their own families are concerned about how others will see them, how others will talk. One of the young women shares how she has her male teammate drop her off at the beginning of her street so the neighborhood aunties won’t talk about her to her mom like she’s a “bad girl” for simply having a friend and teammate who is a boy.
I ask Akash to share how his NGO deals with the issue of reputation with parents. Akash shares about the father of one of their now top female players. “He said to me, ‘I don’t want the neighborhood boys talking about my daughter.’ So, I said to him, ‘Sir, let me ask you, which is more important? The rugby players and coaches talking good things about your daughter, the people in the crowds and maybe even international athletes talking good things about your daughter? Or the boys down the street talking bad things about your daughter? Which is more important?’ And he ended up letting her play.” Akash went on to say that this one girl ignited other families to let their daughters play.
We wrap up by discussing how simply knowing what parents are thinking, what their major concerns are regarding safety, priorities and reputation allows us to assuage these worries and come up with creative strategies to overcome them. The group comes up with a few of their own strategies: invite parents to watch practice and introduce parents to all the boys on the team, regular home visits by the coaches and captains, and having practice in the mornings rather than evenings so there’s no chance of missing curfew. And as one of our participants commented, “We need to remember that parents do have fears, and rightly so. But it’s our goal to help parents move beyond them.”