In Rajasthan, football helps girls kick child marriage menace

Dressed in yellow shorts and a matching t-shirt, Maya Gujjar, 19, flashes a smile as she points at the goalpost on the ground of the government senior secondary school in Hansiyawas, a village in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district.

“I was married when I was three-four years old. When I first started playing football, girls like me were the subject of ridicule in our village. They told us ‘kya karegi football khelkar, jana toh sasural hi hai (what will you do by playing football, you have to go to the house of your in-laws)’” says Maya, who is among the more than 250 teenage girls in Ajmer, who have found football as a means to break the established gender norm in the region.

Women football players listening to a video message of Former Indian Football team captain Bhaichung Bhutia on Sunday in Ajmer district.

Maya, who is a resident of neighbouring Padampura village, says she doesn’t remember anything about her child marriage.

“I first discovered that I was married when I was in Class VII. Now, I have to constantly refuse the pressure of my family and villagers to go for gauna (cohabitation with husband) to the house of my in-laws. I want to keep playing football and want to become an IAS officer,” adds Maya, who says that she is the first girl from Padampura to go to college. She is, at present, a first-year BA student.

Maya was among the 200 girls who turned up for ‘Football Samvad’ –an interaction of young football players with office bearers of the district and state football associations – in Hansiyawas Sunday.

“While working with young girls in the area, we noticed that due to child marriage, many of the girls would become pregnant as early as 15-16 years of age. We found football as a medium to give the girls more agency. We had to even face reactions from villagers such as ‘ye ladkiyan agar khelti rahi toh ye to saasre jaane se mana kar denge (if these girls continue to play, then they will refuse to go to the house of in-laws)’” says Indira Pancholi, secretary, Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti (MJAS), Ajmer.

According to Mamta Jangid, who coaches the 270 girls who are part of the ‘football for unity and solidarity programme’ initiated by the MJAS and supported by UNICEF Rajasthan, 35 girls have participated in state-level private tournaments and around 50 girls have represented their schools.

Jangid, 25, said that she holds a licence from the All India Football Federation to impart football coaching at the grassroots level.

“I want to become a football player and be financially independent. My parents and villagers pressurise me to go to the house of my in-laws since I was married as a child but I have kept resisting. When I first started playing football, I told people back home that I was going for a theatre workshop,” says Payal Prajapati, 18, who missed the interaction on Sunday as she was busy playing at a district-level tournament in Ajmer.

According to NFHS-5 (2020-21) data released by the government earlier this year, 25.4 per cent of women surveyed in Rajasthan between ages 20 and 24 got married before attaining the legal age of 18. Although the state showed improvement compared to NFHS-4 (2015-16) when the figure for Rajasthan was 35.4, the state continued to be above the national figure of 23.3 per cent. In rural Rajasthan, the figure is substantially higher with 28.3 per cent of women surveyed in the aforementioned age category being married as a child.

“Sports promotes social inclusion. Sports can lead to a reduction in inequality between boys and girls and help to create an equitable society,” said Isabelle Bardem, chief of UNICEF Rajasthan, which is supporting the programme.

During the event at Hansiyawas Sunday, the girls also received a video message from former Indian football team captain Bhaichung Bhutia.

“It is great to see such a huge number of girls participating in football, especially in India. I’m sure that this will help females earn an equal place in sports… I’m very excited and wish that someday I can come to see these little champions playing and would also like to play with them. I request all the parents to support their daughter to come forward,” said Bhutia.

Some of the women such as Suman Gujjar, 18, who resisted child marriage but got married just after turning 18, said they wanted facilities such as better grounds. Suman said that she has told her in-laws that she will keep playing football.

“I promise all possible support to the girls. My message to these women football players who are… fighting the orthodox society is that change is the rule of the universe. The fact that two of the girls have played at the state level proves that they’ve changed the mindset of people around,” said Manvendra Singh, former MP and president of the Rajasthan Football Association, Sunday.

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