Last week, after weaving my way down a cobbled street full of food vendors and a surprising number of goats, I sat down in the headmistress’s office of a school on the outskirts of Mumbai. The government-run school serves students from the nearby slums, and began to provide the Goal program for their girl students six months ago. The headmistress had kindly agreed to meet with me to share her impressions of the program.
The Goal is set up like this: Over the course of ten months, groups of adolescent girls receive netball training sessions and life skills lessons either once or twice a week. The life skills lessons include information on effective communication, women’s legal rights, female health issues, sex education, self-esteem, and financial literacy. Eventually, netball tournaments and matches are arranged with other Goal teams. The Goal sessions usually take place during school hours (so as to not interfere with other responsibilities at home) and the Goal program provides the coaches and equipment. At the end of each ten-month program, several girls are chosen to be Goal Champions, and act as coaches for new batches of students. It is funded primarily by Standard Chartered Bank, and they’ve put together an excellent explanatory video here.
“Before Goal, we had never had any programs for girls. Not one,” the headmistress told me immediately, going into a tangent on the program’s positive effects before I could even open my mouth to ask a question. Her excitement about Goal was tangible: she very obviously loves their presence in her school. The school struggles to keep its students, especially the girls, enrolled. Many children drop out of school because their family needs the extra income of another worker to get by. Since the onset of Goal, however, the headmistress and teachers have noted a marked difference in girls’ attendance. “They anticipate the days of the Goal program. They want to be here,” she explains.
No other athletic supplies available at this government-run school. The playing space available is rocky and cramped—not an ideal field for any sport. So when Goal brought in sports equipment for netball six months ago, the entire student body paid attention. “The boys did not understand why the girls were receiving the equipment and they were not,” the headmistress explained. The discrepancy forced teachers to talk about why it was important to invest in the girls. Topics of gender expectations and inequality were raised in classrooms to explain the presence of Goal. The headmistress regards these discussions as having positive impact on their community, but would like to offer a similar sports program for the male students in the near future. She believes the opportunity to play sports is just as important as the life skills lessons. No other class at the school is teaching material on HIV, health topics, or financial literacy.
I’ve attended a number of different Goal sessions during my time in Mumbai, in addition to interviewing participants, coaches, parents, and teachers. There are five sites around the city where Goal conducts its sessions: four of them are at government schools serving slum populations and one is a home for at-risk girls. During this time, I’ve also had the chance to try my hand at netball as a way to get to know the girls and see how sessions run. I get the impression that the girls find my inexperience with netball as both funny and endearing.
Netball is essentially basketball without backboards or dribbling. The ball resembles a heavy volleyball and is passed up and down the court in a series of quick passes. Without the aid of a backboard, scoring usually comes via those satisfying “swish” shots you see in basketball. It takes a light touch to make a shot like this, though. Because of my height, it was immediately assumed that I would be an ideal shooter. It quickly became apparent that this was a false assumption. It’s amazing how many times I found myself standing right beneath the basket, ideally positioned, only to miss. After my first game, I was moved to a different position.
One of the most rewarding sessions I attended was a three-hour weekend practice for past Goal participants who had completed their 10-month program. Talking and running around with these players gave me a chance to interact with girls who had finished all their life skills lessons, learned the fundamentals of netball, and chose to continue playing with their team. In general, the girls were confident, energetic, and excellent at making eye contact during conversation—an obvious change that many of my interviewees have noted about Goal participants. The refrain I hear over and over again is that previously shy, demure girls become much more outspoken after completing the program.
Near the end of the practice, we were split into four teams and took turns playing matches. While sitting on the sidelines, my team of ten girls seized the stationary moment to bombard me with different questions ranging from my parents’ names and my religion to how I like “our India” and my marital status. Then the conversation turned to songs and music. They attempted to teach me some Hindi Bollywood songs (didn’t go well), and then sang me bits of the Indian national anthem.
“What is the American national anthem?” One asked, tapping me on the shoulder.
“The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Ten heads nodded expectantly. “Sing,” someone commanded.
There was no way out of the situation. On the spot, I couldn’t for the life of me remember how it started. I tried to stall for a minute, and someone asked incredulously why I didn’t know it by heart. Finally, in desperation, I started at “And the rockets red glare…”
It was clumsy and my voice cracked, but all the girls all clapped when I finished. I felt like I had done my patriotic duty. Happy belated Fourth of July, everyone.
 Eye contact is even more likely because of my strange, foreign blue/green eyes. I was asked on two different occasions if I was wearing colored contact lenses.
 I realize that I have now concluded two back-to-back blog posts with me singing. New theme?