Brothers Shib and Hari Shankar Dasgupta, with their NGO Shreeja, have integrated sports and academics in a way that girls across West Bengal are getting a fair shot at escaping the cycle of violence.
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In 2016, Shib Shankar, a social entrepreneur from Kolkata, was working with an NGO in Bihar in the space of rural development.
“I was involved in educating people about health in Gaya district of Bihar, and Kota district of Uttar Pradesh through campaigns, disseminating information that would help them,” he says.
This was his introduction to the rampant violence against women in Bihar’s villages. In a state that ranks second pan-India in cases of domestic violence, the women that Shib worked with had little agency.
He recalls a particular incident that left him shaken, while he was using mobile phones to discuss health topics with women in Gaya district.
The NGO office received a call informing them that one of the women learning from this programme was beaten mercilessly by her husband, who assumed that she was speaking to another man on the phone. He beat her for long enough that the neighbours had to intervene, Shib recalls.
“To me, that was horrifying news,” he says, adding that his colleagues, too, had seen many such cases of unrest and turmoil.
This made the 63-year-old wonder what support systems these women had in place. Could building a community where young girls met and connected equip them to speak up against such social evils as they grew older?
For Shib, a good way to give this idea some shape was through sports, which could not only bring the girls together, but also portray their strength and zeal to pick up a field that women don’t foray into too often. “I wanted to build a women’s football team,” he tells The Better India.
In 2017, this thought would take shape in the form of Shreeja India, a Kolkata-based NGO that works as a sports-based, out-of-school learning facility for children belonging to tribal communities. Under its purview, there are many activities and learning opportunities.
‘Girls playing football was unheard of’
In his quest to start this venture, Shib was joined by his brother Hari Shankar Dasgupta. The two were filled with a zeal to help girls from villages of Keledihi, Jhikra, Manik Dihi, Badhagachi and more to stand up for themselves.
Over time, the organisation went from being only a football coaching centre to one that was also academics-oriented. This, he says, was at the behest of the parents of 50-odd girls, who were all keen on taking up the sport. “Their parents asked that, along with the football, Shreeja should start an out-of-school academic coaching centre. So that’s what we did,” he says.
Today, Shreeja is that safe space that Shib was looking to create. Girls from 54 villages get to equip themselves with skills brought by their interactions with each other, skills they learn, their progress at sports, and gains in academics.
Having all these activities under one roof is beneficial, says Hari Shankar. “The physical strength and confidence acquired on the football ground are reflected during their out-of-school learning and enhance their academic performance.”
He adds that the bond created on the field also equips the girls to fight social evils like early marriage, abuse, trafficking, and violence against women.
Sonali Soren has been part of the football coaching since she was ten years old. She says it all began when she saw boys in her village playing the game and was intrigued to join in.
“In our village, girls playing football is unheard of. Since I did not know of many girls who played the sport, I would practise with the boys. But when I joined Shreeja, it all changed,” she says.
She also notes that the NGO takes care of all their food and nutrition requirements as well.
To add to football and academics, there is also a focus on the holistic development of the girls. For instance, they are given computer classes and learn about different topics on the smart TVs on campus.
“We also do play therapy, wherein a trained play therapist helps the children explore their emotions and deal with unresolved trauma,” says Shib.
Along with this, social awareness programmes address issues such as child marriage, trafficking, menstrual and sexual health, etc., and help render meaningful information and resources to the girls.
“These programmes sensitise them and give them knowledge as they often lack appropriate guidance in these matters,” he adds.
The cycle of good
The NGO also runs the Nutri-Homes project, wherein they provide 70 households from 15 backward villages in Rajnagar, Birbhum with fruits, vegetables, and training to start their own kitchen gardens.
The idea at Shreeja is to start a cycle of good. Thus, girls who are trained and clear their higher secondary board exams are further encouraged to train the next batches. This is part of Project Vidushee, launched in August 2020.
As Shib explains, Project Vidushee focuses on the foundational learning of children from tribal communities.
It seeks to instil the habit of regularly attending school in first-generation learners, who are primarily aged five to 10. “This project targets both boys and girls, as Shreeja believes all genders need to be adequately informed,” he adds.
Currently, Shib says, there are 10 Vidushee teachers and 143 children under the programme.
We spoke to one of them, Neha Mardi, who has been associated with Shreeja since Class 10 and is now a teacher under Project Vidushee.
Recounting her own days as a student at Shreeja, she says, “I interacted with so many other girls who all came from different villages, and this helped me grow while I studied and played with them.”
She adds that along with her studies, she also learnt a lot about culture and values. When she gave her higher secondary boards, Neha made her village proud by scoring 92 per cent.
A lasting impact, on and off the field
Shreeja India’s Beyond Football programme has been running in Birbhum and Purba Bardhaman districts of West Bengal for the last five years and has helped 300 girls play football, says Shib.
However, challenges have been plenty for the brothers, given that age-old customs and notions are embedded deeply in the communities they work with.
“The girls live within social systems where parents, siblings, and community members are not supportive of their education,” says Shib. “These harsh conditions force them to believe that they are capable of nothing more than the life they are already leading.”
Changing this notion has been a challenge.
For now, they’re on the way to challenging these notions, he adds. Along with this, they are looking to infuse the football programme with knowledge workshops, art, dance, drama, one-on-one guidance, and mentoring.
“These enrichment programmes will move the girls beyond the ordinary behaviours into the realms of active learning,” says Shib.
He believes that Shreeja will soon be a place where discussion and dialogue will take place, not just about football and academics, but also about community concerns.
“Football integrated with academics can be a powerful vehicle for empowering women and catalysing social change,” he opines.
Edited by Divya Sethu