It was 5pm on a Sunday. A group of women, some clad in burqas, clapped and cheered softly from the sidelines. On a dusty patch of ground in front of them, at a worn-out school building, a bunch of girls was robustly chasing each other.
“Kabbadi… kabbadi… kabbadi,” hissed one of the girls as she forayed across the line into the opposing team’s territory. There were loud cries and a semi-circle of players moved energetically in a formation near her.
Seated on a plastic chair by the side of the makeshift field, Sainad Begum watched her daughter play in this friendly kabbadi tournament. She was here to support her daughter. “My husband doesn’t approve,” she said. “Many people don’t approve. They say the girls are grown up, they shouldn’t be sent to play.”
But that has not stopped young girls in the locality from turning out to play every week. For nearly a year now, through the Parivartan programme run by the non-profit International Centre for Research on Women and Apnalaya, a quiet revolution has been rippling through the shanties and slums of Govandi. Among Mumbai’s poorest wards, with the worst human development indices, and where prejudice and economic constraints limit opportunities for girls, teenagers are getting that rare thing: a chance to play.
“All week,” said Mariyam Shaikh, 15, just before the session began, “We keep waiting for Sunday evening, when we can come out to play.” It is a cherished slot in the weekly calendar, and at least 100 girls, aged 12-17, show up every week at different times.
Reshma Ansari, 17, sitting beside Mariyam, was waiting for the others to arrive, and reflected on the unequal opportunities for boys and girls. “Girls should also get to play,” she said. “Otherwise we feel frustrated, bored.”
The programme was set up in January this year, and will culminate with a tournament in the New Year.
The girls are divided into groups, each mentored by a young woman from the community. “We felt we had to do something in sports for empowerment,” said Shweta Bankar, a technical specialist for Parivartan.
“The girls can claim a space for themselves in the community, they gain an ability to negotiate for themselves and they can build their confidence.”
In Muslim-dominated Govandi, about 77 per cent is slum population, the average age of death is 39 years (compared to 52 years for the city) and the infant mortality rate is 66.47 for every 1,000 live births, compared to 34.75 for the city, according to data from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
Against these odds, where daily life is an ongoing struggle, kabbadi continues to offer hope.
“Who said it is a boy’s game?” asked one exuberant player after the tournament. “Anyone can play.”
For a couple of hours a week, scores of girls gather to engage in the rough and tumble of the game. Some arrive dressed in salwar kameez, some with headscarves, which they shed for a few hours and throw themselves into the playing field.
“Sometimes people comment,” said Chandni Ansari, 17. “They say, ‘How can parents let her out of the house?’ But when my parents don’t have a problem, then what right do others have to say this?”
Although some parents may have been reluctant at first to send their daughters out of the house, and to play, of all things, in what is often described as an unsafe locality, those reservations have largely been overcome. “Once girls turn 11 or 12 years old, they don’t leave the house much,” said Meraj Qureshi, 21, a young woman from the community appointed as a mentor. “Parents are scared they may be harassed on the streets.”
Some girls drop out of school due to financial constraints or other reasons. Even those who do go to school either don’t have playgrounds or playtime slots.
“If there is no place, where will they play?” asked Fatma Khatoon, the mother of a player. She smiled. “I may not be able to play, but watching my daughter play, I am also able to enjoy myself.” She continued, “If they go forward freely, only then can they move ahead.”
Aside from the kabbadi slot, the girls have a weekly slot where they are taught modules related to gender, life skills and health. The goal, said Bankar, is to foster personal development, confidence and broader social skills.
At the kabbadi ground the girls showed no signs of self-consciousness, throwing themselves enthusiastically into the game and boisterously berating each other.
“Earlier we might have felt scared about speaking,” said Mariyam. “Now we are more confident. And we feel good physically.”
Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based journalist