Two Sisters in Odisha Overcome Discrimination & Exclusion to Play Football

Born in a remote village in Odisha’s Kandhamal district, a 19-year-old girl called Sharmilata Pradhan aspires to be the best football player in the country. She’s the first child in her village to have completed Class 12. She has conquered many bastions of discrimination and exclusion to pursue her dreams. She remains buoyant and determined to reach new heights. How did this girl make the impossible possible? It all started with her elder sister Jyamuna who almost got married at the tender age of 15.

Both Jyamuna and Sharmilata belong to the Kandha Primitive Tribal Group (PTG) of Odisha. Her family depends on the resources of the forests, horticulture and shifting cultivation. They have a younger brother and sister. “The day my parents pressured me to get married, I knew I had to fight my battle. My mother had studied only till Class 2; I was the only female who had studied till Class 10 in the family,” shares Jyamuna. She had attended a workshop on Life Skill Training and Reproductive & Sexual Health, where she learnt about the ill effects of early marriage. It took her three years to convince her parents that she wasn’t ready for marriage. She would watch the boys in her village play football. She got the idea of forming a girls’ football team and encouraged girls in her village to join the team. In 2019, the football team was finally formed and since then they have played six matches at the block level.

Watching her trailblazer sister, Sharmilata too wanted to play football. But resistance came from her family and the entire community. “My brother would taunt me and say girls don’t play football. It’s better you learn cooking; your in-laws will praise you if you know cooking well,” said Sharmilata. Every time she would ask for sports gear to practice football, she was turned down or discouraged. She would only practice in the evening despite her family being unhappy about her going out during dinner. But that’s the only time the playground would be available to the girls. The daylight hours were for the boys and their playtime.

“I was often told that I would never find a good husband if I played football. They reduced my self-worth to how good a husband I can get. No one cared about my desires and passion. But I didn’t stop playing. Save the Children (Bal Raksha Bharat) team arrived just in time. As part of their program, we were allowed to express our dreams and desires. And, it worked like magic. Save the Children helped us get all the equipment. There was no looking back from there,” she said.

When the pandemic struck, Sharmilata not only got disconnected from her education, she couldn’t play outside. Her family didn’t have a smartphone and since hills surround her village, they didn’t have access to high-speed internet connection. Most of her time was spent doing household chores. She found it very difficult to stay within the four walls of her house. She was also getting anxious that she wasn’t able to practice. She was completely cut away from football and the rest of her team members. For a sportsperson, not being able to practice can feel like a punishment. After the second wave, they started playing once a week and slowly increased the number of days. Now, they practice every day.

“I broke all barriers to reach here and I wouldn’t look back. I will chase my dream and want to be the best player. I know I can,” said Sharmilata.

“Save the Children empowered me to raise my voice and fight for my rights. I don’t want to see my younger sister kill her dream to play at the national level,” said Jyamuna.

According to the National Family and Health Survey (NFHS-5), the percentage of women age 20-24 years married before age 18 years was at 23.3. The prevalence of child marriage has declined over the years; however, anecdotal and other sources report a sudden surge in child marriages due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Save the Children’s report – World of India’s Girls (WINGS) 2022 – that was recently launched emphasizes on the need to empower girls and women to exercise their life choices. It also recommends creating opportunities for child and young people-led advocacy and accountability on child marriage through forums such as children’s groups and youth groups.

Save the Children has been working with girls like Sharmilata in 25 villages across Odisha on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) for more than a year. Before the current intervention, Save the Children worked with 10,000 adolescent girls on the ‘Marriage No Child’s Play’ project. Sharmilata has been part of the program since her childhood days. Save the Children has helped her with regular football training and supported her with the required equipment. The team even counselled her family members.

“We have been engaging with Sharmilata since she was 10. She has the zeal to play and we helped her realise her dream. Right to participation is the key to seeing children growing in a healthy environment,” said Save the Children team member Manoj.

Currently, Save the Children is seeking partnerships with Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan and the Sports Authority of India so that the girl’s football team can play at the state and national levels.

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