By Tanya Abramsky
Kabaddi, a traditional Indian contact sport, could be more than just an energzing hybrid of tag and wrestling. It could also be the key to empowering girls and increasing their standing within the community. At least this is one of the assertions being tested in a new study taking place in the Shivaji Nagar slum community of Mumbai, India.
The Parivartan programme has been running in Shivaji Nagar since 2008, using sport as a springboard from which to change young peoples’ attitudes towards gender roles and gender-based violence. In its first incarnation, aimed at adolescent boys, cricket coaches were trained to promote gender-equitable attitudes and respect for girls and women through a sports-based curriculum. Following on the success of this program, Parivartan for Girls is now offering a similar opportunity for girls – a sports program designed to increase girls’ self-esteem, self-confidence and educational aspirations.
“Through sports, girls will acquire new interpersonal networks, develop a sense of identity, learn negotiation skills and teamwork, and access new opportunities,” says Madhumita Das, senior technical specialist at the Asia Regional office of the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) which heads the program. This will allow them to “become more engaged in school and community life … and ultimately translate into continued education and delayed marriage.”
To this end, Parivartan for Girls will engage up to 150 girls, aged 12–16 years, in a program that combines sport, discussion sessions and group education activities. Over a period of 15 months, girls will meet twice a week to play Kabaddi, and discuss topics ranging from life skills and health to gender, violence and sexual harassment. Crucially, the Kabaddi sessions will take place in school grounds and gradually transit to public spaces. Women and girls need safe spaces in which to pursue activities, but so too do they need the opportunity to occupy space which has until now not been considered ‘appropriate’ for them. In a tournament taking place in public grounds towards the end of the 15-month program, girls will play kabbadi in full view of their communities for perhaps the first time in their lives.
Ten young female mentors are currently being trained up to lead these sessions. As a result of a collaboration between Maharashtra State Kabaddi Association, ICRW and a local community development NGO called Apnalaya, they have recently completed ten days of Kabaddi training and five days of gender training. “I never felt so strong: My body is in my control”, said one of the mentors of her experiences so far. They are now spending a few days practicing with the Kabaddi Association’s formal team to further hone their skills.
This training is vital. What may seem to outsiders a fairly innocuous intervention is likely to prove challenging to implement. In communities where girls have not had opportunities to participate in sport, nor had safe access to public spaces, the program goes head to head with engrained norms. To minimize community backlash and pressures on the girls to discontinue the program, Apnalaya and ICRW will also be holding discussion groups with the parents of the girls and running community sensitization programs with boys and men throughout the duration of the program.
A study led by ICRW will document these challenges alongside a rigorous process evaluation of changes in attitudes and behavior among the girls, their families, the mentors and the wider community in response to the program. In the meantime, the idea of changing lives is exciting for those involved. “Jumping and kicking around is a way to get girls out of their comfort zone and show what they’re made of,” says Das. “Ultimately, fitness can be a very empowering experience because it will allow them to break out of their routine and become physically and mentally stronger.”
Tanya Abramsky is a researcher and writer in the Social and Mathematical Epidemiology group (SaME) at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, partners with ICRW in the STRIVE research consortium, tackling the structural drivers of HIV.