Its 5 AM and undeterred by the chill in the morning air, some 50 odd children, most of them girls, go through their martial arts moves, closely watched by 18-year-old Neha*.
They are students of Abhyudaya Ashram, a residential school in Morena, Madhya Pradesh that has produced many state and national-level taekwondo and kabaddi players over the decades.
Listen to their stories and you learn that they are champions every day.
The school exclusively admits children from the tribal Bedia community, a nomadic clan where women traditionally practice sex work.
They are sole breadwinners and parents introduce girls to the trade when they hit puberty. Men are largely unemployed. They are not expected to work, but pimp for the women at best. Any attempt to challenge this is met with strong resistance.
Tradition, activists say, is an excuse and that the men have become used to leading a life of little responsibility.
Neha’s mother supported her desire to study so unlike other Bedia girls she did not take up sex work but went to school. “My father and grandmother were very unhappy but my mother was very firm”, she says.
All that changed when she was killed in an accident. Neha was 14.
“My father and grandmother started putting a lot of pressure on me to take up sex work”, she says. “They would try to convince me by talking about the fancy clothes and jewelry I would get to wear.”
When that didn’t work Neha was beaten up. Then one day she overheard her father making plans to sell her at Sonagachi, Kolkata’s red-light district.
Neha ran away from home and sought shelter at Abhyudaya Ashram.
“My mother had told me about the school so I knew I would find help here”, she says.
The centre was started in 1992 by the eminent anti-trafficking crusader Ram Sanehi. A Bedia himself, he challenged the community tradition.
“We teach them taekwondo, kho-kho and kabbadi in the morning,and in the evening they participate in other sports”, says Aruna who is a teacher here. “We focus a lot on sports for the girls as it helps build mental and physical strength and self-esteem”.
So far Abhyudaya Ashram has reached out to over 4000 Bedia children, most of them girls. Many, like Aruna, have gone on to pursue higher education and return as counselors, teachers and activists and work within the community
That sports or games has the power to bring about meaningful change for children and youth is acknowledged the world over. This is particularly true for those at risk due to poverty and gender inequality.
There is growing evidence that if used in the right manner, it can contribute towards promoting health, improving academic outcomes, gender empowerment, and even conflict resolution.
The impact on girls is especially significant because it provides safe spaces where they can meet, speak freely and build support networks.
Large organizations too are sending the potential. Standard Chartered, Nike and Barclays have initiated or are funding sports for development initiatives like Grassroot Soccer in Africa and Yuwa in Jharkhand, to name a few.
In rural Jharkhand, children from tribal backgrounds rarely finish school. Girls’ fare especially worse – 6 in 10 drop out before 12 years and become child brides. Between 60,000-100,000 girls are trafficked every year. Those who seek work locally as rag pickers or construction workers are vulnerable to abuse.
Which makes Rinki’s journey a truly remarkable one.
A tribal from Hutup village, she was 14 when she led a football team to the 2013 Gasteiz Cup in Spain. The team lifted the bronze among 10 all-girls’ teams from around the world. Playing alongside were tribal girls from neighbouring villages. In 2014 they made history again as the first Indian football team to compete in the USA Cup.
These girls are members of Yuwa, a not-for-profit co-founded in 2009 by American Franz Gastler It reaches out to 200 girls between the ages of 6-18 years in Jharkhand’s Ormanjhi block.
Yuwa uses football to empower girls and gives them a platform to fight against early marriage and trafficking. Through lessons in English, computers and Math, they are encouraged to think critically and develop employability skills.
“My mother went to school for just two days because her parents decided that she had to watch the cows”, says Rinki. “She was married off at 15 and earns a living and does the housework as my father is an alcoholic.”
She believes her situation would have been no different had it not been for football.
Gastler believes that given the space to explore their abilities and challenge themselves, children can be change-makers.
“At Yuwa we witness how girls can improve their communities, act as leaders and support their families. Remember, these girls will raise their own children differently.”
*Name changed upon request
This article was published in Business Standard Online