Play Like a Girl: The Rise of India's Female Athletes

Photos and Text by Karen Dias

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Play Like A Girl
By Karen Dias

The small state of Haryana, in northern India, has the country's most imbalanced sex ratio, at 879 females per 1000 males. Haryana is also known for caste-based and sexual violence against women and female foeticide, rape, trafficking and domestic violence are common. But it's also where a small and scattered community of girls are breaking stereotypes and winning international laurels in sports ranging from hockey to boxing, wrestling to football and rifle shooting. In a place where women are rarely allowed outside the house unaccompanied and wearing 'western clothes' and playing physical sports are a complete no-no, Haryana’s young girls are qualifying and winning in the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, National Games amongst various other national and international championships. However, the path to pursuing a sport of their choice comes with great struggle. Most of the girls belong to poor families and cannot afford the equipment, diet and upkeep required to play professionally. Most girls can’t even dream of having access to sports physiologists or the medical facilities that their western counterparts have access to. Even though, there is a great push from the Haryana government to develop sports in the state, sporting facilities have a long way to go and bureaucracy makes it harder for some players to get access to meal schemes, prize money, etc. Some girls even mention how the prize money for girls is less than the boys for the same sports. A lot of the players don’t even have access to toilets or changing rooms. 

Besides obstacles on the playing field, the girls battle patriarchy and gender-based discrimination on a regular basis. Many families object to their daughters’ wearing shorts or playing with boys or even playing a sport, which is what men do. Most girls realise that they may have to give up their sports careers when their parents decide that they have to get married. But success as a professional player brings with it financial freedom, success and fame which allows the girls to negotiate marriage at a later stage and helps them support their families. In lieu of alleviating a families societal status and reputation, many girls are allowed to pursue their sport of choice for much longer. The success stories of Olympian Sakshi Malik and the Phogat sisters have inspired more girls to take up sports and fitness in Haryana and more families now encourage their daughters to play. Things have a long way to go for these young sportswomen in Haryana but they are leading the way and proving how sport can play a big role in empowering young women and bring about much-needed gender equality in this state. 

This project was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF).