Most of the population of Jharkhand’s Karma village, located near Ranchi, belongs to the tribal community. Despite being close to the state capital, where women study and work by exercising their will, the girls from this village are barely “allowed” to lead an independent life.
In many instances, they never step out of the house except to carry out chores assigned by their family members. They hardly finish higher secondary school and are married off at a young age.
But not anymore.
Today the girls of Karma are scripting a new success story with a simple game of football.
All this is thanks to Anand Kumar Gope, who is helping the girls of his village chase a new destiny, and pushing them to be more independent and create an identity for themselves. A former football player and a licensed coach, he has dedicated his life to grooming gems that now represent India at the national level.
Bend it like Anand
What is the 30-year-old’s motivation to carry out this initiative? An unfulfilled dream, he says.
“I have played football since my childhood, and have always been passionate about the sport. My parents always encouraged me, and I even played at the Ranchi league and district levels in 2010, 2011 and 2012. However, my family’s poor financial condition never allowed me to train and participate at a national level,” he tells The Better India.
Anand says that upon realising that he could not pursue his dream because he had to support his family, he decided to put his skills to use for a social cause.
“I have seen many girls in my village who never went to school or completed their education. They are married at a young age for a few thousand rupees of dowry and sent to states like Rajasthan and Haryana,” he shares.
Anand says he wanted to change this and thought that giving these girls an opportunity through sports could potentially change their destiny. “The mindset of the community needed to change,” he says.
However, it was easier said than done.
Over six months, Anand spent most of his time persuading parents to allow their daughters to play football. “The parents did not budge. The girls in the village had never been involved in sports or other extra-curricular activities, and their parents questioned the motive the game would serve. Football skills would not help in running a family and raising children, they said,” he says.
Regardless, Anand continued his tireless efforts and even spoke to the girls to see how willing they were to play. “The girls had always seen boys play the game, but had never touched the ball or received an opportunity to play themselves. Some were eager to try,” he explains.
In October 2013, he finally managed to convince 15 girls and their parents to allow them to play football. But this only invited more hurdles.
“Locals questioned my intent and passed comments about the girls playing football and wearing shorts. The girls would also wake up early, for which they gave up their daily routine of household chores to play football. The people in the village found this odd, and it took time for them to accept the changing social dynamics,” he says.
Eventually, the girls became used to the comments, stares, and other unwelcoming gestures being hurled at them.
Anand also enrolled some of them who were not attending school in various institutes so they could continue their education, which would help them become part of the football teams in their respective institutions.
He has since trained over 250 girls and 50 boys from his village.
“About 25 students have entered nationals and represented the state in various tournaments. Eight girls have represented India in England, and six others have played under-17 in Denmark,” he says proudly.
In fact, two of Anand’s players, Anita Kumari and Soni Munda, were recently shortlisted for the FIFA World Cup camp scheduled for 2022.
Giving girls the wings to fly
Anand’s initiative has also helped keep a check on child marriages. “One day, I learned that a girl playing football had stopped visiting the playground as she was about to be married. The girl was 13 years old then, and was being married to a man from Rajasthan for a Rs 25,000 dowry. I visited her parents and explained to them about the possible police case against child marriage. I explained what the legalities of such a wrong decision would be. They agreed and called off the wedding.”
Anand says the same girl was later selected to represent the Jharkhand Under-14 team and even played for the Indian team in Tajikistan.
Anita Kumari, one of Anand’s students, says, “I was always fascinated by the game, and Anand sir introduced me to it. Girls in my village never even go out of their settlement. I started playing under him in 2015, as this opportunity would only open doors for me to explore the world and pursue a different career.”
“My father does not support my decision, but my mother does. It is only because of Anand sir that girls like me have a chance to stand out among others. Many girls are now inspired by the media coverage and popularity of the game, and want to pursue it as a career,” she adds.
Meanwhile, Anand notes, “Seeing the success of these girls has inspired many many parents to approach me and express their desire to send their daughters for coaching.”
However, the change has not come easy. “We started with one football for many girls. On many occasions, the residents vandalised the playground where the girls practised. They took many steps to prevent the girls from playing. The girls also faced a lack of nutritionists and adequate diet during their training days,” he says.
Anand adds that the girls still face obstacles when it comes to adequate nutrition, as they mainly consume maad bhaat, rice with saltwater, as their primary diet. “We have written multiple letters to the state’s sports department for support, but no help has arrived yet,” he says.
“I have spent over eight years helping girls play at national and international level without external support. If the government decides to help, the region can become an international training centre for football,” he says.
Keeping his hopes high, Anand says he is proud of how far he and his girls have come. “The girls from my village had never even seen a train or travelled outside the town. But today, they fly in airplanes to different parts of the world. I feel glad that they have received a platform where they can explore opportunities in life and career,” he says.
Edited by Divya Sethu