Khelo, Jeeto, Aage Badho

In the forest village of Dhanpada, the air was filled with excitement and nervousness as a team of youngsters prepared to compete in the trials for Pro-Kabaddi to be held on the next day in Nehru Stadium, Harda. It was not unusual to find kabaddi teams in the villages of the district. The game had been popular among the youth since a long time.

However, on looking closely, you would notice a difference between the teams of Dhanpada and of other villages. Dressed in blue t-shirts and shorts, eighteen women Kabaddi players competing with men’s team was an unfamiliar sight in this village of the district.

“When these girls first wore the kit, they felt so shy. They used to stand in a corner together and giggle”, says Ganesh, their 27-year old coach and a Changelooms fellow. Under their Changelooms project, “Khelo, Jeeto, Aage Badho”, Ganesh and Purnima encouraged women kabaddi players to build their teams in three tribal (Gond and Korku) villages of Harda. Moreover, they trained three young people from these villages to coach these teams. “There were some of us who played Kabaddi in the evening before Changelooms. We even went to Anand Utsav (a local sports festival) to play but there wasn’t a single women’s teams to compete with. Finally, we played with girls of Khamgaon and won and that was a huge motivation for us to keep playing and build our team.”

Remoteness and disconnectedness of forest villages coupled with lack of financial resources among the community are major reasons why young kabaddi enthusiasts are unable to travel all the way to Timarni for practice while it is normal for young men like Ganesh who come from comparatively well-off families in the village to access training. The problem gets severe for girls and young women whose movement is restricted due to cultural norms. “I joined the programme with a single goal: Girls who play kabaddi in the village should get a chance to move up in the game”, says Purnima.

To bridge this gap between the forest villages and the city and to close gender inequality, these Changeloomers are striving to create an environment in villages where training and opportunities can be provided to young Kabaddi enthusiasts.

But this wasn’t as simple as it seems to be. They faced numerous challenges to reach their goal. Ganesh probed into some of them and shared that there were many issues related to time now and then as all girls and women were available at a different time for practice. It was very difficult to bring them together as a team.

Sangeeta, one of the kabaddi players in Dhanpada, hopped in and complaint how Ganesh and Purnima made them practice for a match for 15 days in concrete and they all injured their knees and feet. The unavailability of ground and proper kit, especially the mat, still remains a huge challenge.

However, they were able to overcome many challenges by designing simple strategies. “I convinced my kabaddi team members from three villages to encourage their sisters to play. During the practice hour crisis, our Changelooms mentor helped us a lot and suggested us to meet the families of all the players, understand their situation, hold a meeting with all of them in different meetings and fix timings for practice with them.” The duo also filed an application with the MLA for mat and other facilities, “They had accepted our request and we were very positive about it but the government changed after these elections so our plea is still hanging”, Ganesh says.

Currently, 28 women from all villages are associated with the initiative. They hold frequent inter-village matches to sustain the energy as well as assess their progress. These matches have unveiled the huge community support for the girls and the sport. “We are always excited before a game. We cheer for the girls and even scold them when they don’t perform well”, says the elder sister of Ganesh.

On probing into the impact of this one-year journey, Purnima agrees that she has seen a significant change in the attitude of families towards their girls who come to play. “They weren’t allowed to go out of the house in the evenings. But now, they start practicing at 8 P.M.” Priyanka, another player from the team says, “I have built a lot confidence and so have the other girls from the community. They walk the villages and city in shorts without any shame or fear.”

The impact of this initiative had definitely been wide ranging. “Jamuna’s marriage got postponed because of Kabaddi. What can be a greater change than this?”, says Anita, a community member, who sat besides Jamuna, an extremely shy girl from the community who was thrilled about going to Harda for the trials. These trials are the only excuse for her to travel around freely.

Ganesh reflects on his one-year Changelooms journey and admits that the formation of girl’s kabaddi team would have never been possible if the journey had not pushed him out of his comfort zones to make it happen. “I would have tried and failed and then given up on the idea. But the meetings were a huge driver for me to keep trying because everyone else was working on their objective. I became more aware about women’s issues and developed confidence to talk openly to people.” Nodding in agreement, Purnima says, “I know how to speak now. Besides, I have become more resolute towards my goal of becoming a Police.”

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