More important than love

“If you could teach the world one thing – what would it be?”

17-year-old Sita sat in a plastic chair in the corridor of a village school, a space Yuwa borrows each evening for after-school classes. A visiting journalism student from Norway sat next to her, notebook in hand. Sita fidgeted. “One more time, please repeat?”

“Imagine you could teach the whole world one thing, one lesson, and everyone would listen to you. What would you teach?”

Sita’s teammates clustered around her on the concrete floor, waiting for her answer. Sita, unanimously the best English speaker in the group, has a way of speaking that demanded respect. Just beyond the makeshift classroom, a pack of small boys loitered in the schoolyard. Their eyes had a far-away look that gave away their high from carpenter’s glue.

“Education is more important than love,” Sita finally declared, as if this were the obvious answer.

The Norwegian student looked confused.

“I will teach everyone that education is the most important thing—more important than love. All these people think love is the only thing. Girls in my village think only about love, about marriage. And then, their life is over.

“I want to tell everyone this is wrong. Nothing is more important than education.”

A class in the dark 

I’ve spent over two years living in Hutup Village in Jharkhand. I teach English classes for girls. I also build and manage the educational programs for Yuwa. Primarily, these programs consist of before- and after-school academic classes. These girls are the first women in their family to set their sights on higher education, despite the pressure in their communities to drop out of school and get married. Most of their mothers can’t sign their own names—instead they sign with a thumbprint.


Photo Credit: Krish Makhija

Every morning at 4:45, around thirty-five girls show up at the Yuwa House. It’s pitch black and cold. They come wrapped up in blankets and huddle around a fire they start with newspapers and hay for 15 minutes until classes start. The power is always out at that hour (spotty village electricity), so classes are taught by candlelight.

The girls choose to start Yuwa classes early because they need time to walk home, wash last night’s dinner dishes, sweep the floor, make tea, eat breakfast, and then walk to school. They don’t have free time during the day, so they make time for themselves before dawn. About once a week, I ask (hopefully) if they’d like to change the class time to 6:00 am, when the sun rises.

They smile. No. 5:00 is okay.


Photo Credit: Krish Makhija

 Memorize, cheat, repeat

At Yuwa, we tell the girls that they can achieve something by working hard in their schools. With Yuwa’s affirmation, they build up dreams. They believe that with hard work and education, they can become police officers, pilots, bankers, nurses, and lawyers. They believe they can construct a life different from the one their mothers have been forced to make.

But I know the state of schools here. Jharkhand has one of the highest student-to-teacher ratios in the country. Classrooms are packed—sometimes over a hundred students to one teacher. In rural areas, more students fail their 10th grade exams than pass. I’ve met countless eighteen-year olds who, despite attending school, can’t read a Hindi book or multiply a number. Students are beaten for petty missteps: a girl walking in the hallway with her hands at her sides instead of clasped humbly behind her back, speaking with a male student, wearing traditional mehndi on her hands.

The mantra at Jharkhand schools could be: memorize, cheat, repeat. Material is meant to be accepted and memorized, not understood or questioned. Students cheat because they know no other way to pass exams. Teachers pass their students on to the next grade, despite failing marks. By 10th grade (the last year of high school in Jharkhand), most students are incapable of gaining admission to any college. For fifteen-year-old girls, that means it’s time to get married.


Photo Credit: Krish Makhija

Yuwa’s before- and after- school classes are not enough to make up for years of worthless education. I’m sick of telling girls that their studies can enable them to take control of their lives. For girls who spend the bulk of their day in poor, overcrowded schools, this is a lie.

So, we’ve decided to build a school.

Breaking the cycle 

Last May, Yuwa organized its first summer school. Over thirty girls participated in the month-long program. For four hours everyday, small groups of students rotated to different stations for math, engineering, English, science, drawing, and computer classes. With support from eight enthusiastic, volunteer teachers from India and abroad, the Yuwa classes were intensive, fun, and hands-on.


Photo Credit: Krish Makhija

When it was time for the girls to change to a different class, I would walk around from group to group to make sure they knew where to go next. When I would announce that their current class was finished, the girls would give a collective groan and beg for five more minutes. But when I told them which class they had next, they would cheer and dash on to their next teacher. They did this daily, regardless of which class they were coming from or going to.

This is not normal behaviour for kids. I don’t know if I’d even believe that story if I hadn’t seen it. But it’s indicative of the Yuwa girls’ contagious enthusiasm to learn. Another example? The girls’ before- and after- summer school math assessment tests improved by an average of 111%, from about 30% to more than 80%.

The teachers at Yuwa have seen the girls’ potential to excel in academics. These girls are already acting as leaders in their families and communities. A school will create the space they crave to explore their abilities and challenge themselves.


Photo Credit: Krish Makhija

A few months ago, I walked over to a girl named Sunita’s house to collect her mother’s thumbprint as a signature for a legal document. Savita is one of five sisters—which, in this place, is generally considered a curse upon the family. Her father is usually drunk and doesn’t work.

Sunita’s mother, however, has resolved not to get her daughters married until they have completed college. Despite being illiterate, she is funding their education herself. Seven days a week, she travels to and from the nearest city to carry bricks at a construction site for minimum wages. She comes home late and cooks dinner for her entire family. Her unwavering resolve is humbling.

While Sunita made tea for me, her mother and I sat on a cot and conversed by smiles and gestures. Because she never went to school, she only speaks Sadri, the local tribal language. After our tea, I pulled out the document and ink-pad to use for the thumbprint. Sunita’s face lit up, and she left the room. Her mother smiled and pushed the ink-pad away.

“What are you doing?” I called after her.

Sunita returned and handed her mother a pen. Still beaming, she explained,

“I taught my mom to write Hindi letters. She can sign her name.”


Photo Credit: Krish Makhija

To donate to the Yuwa school, please click HERE. We plan to launch a primary school for approximately 50 girls on our existing campus in April 2015. By 2017, we plan to have purchased land in Jharkhand and started construction for a residential school.


Own it

Last month, I was a witness for a Yuwa girl as she gave a police statement about an incident of harassment and attempted theft. To collect this girl’s statement, twelve detectives and officers rolled up to Hutup village in two police-issue jeeps, wielding AK-47’s. It seemed absurdly over-the-top for the case in question, but I was still happy that a case of harassment was being formally addressed. These things are often shrugged off as nothing.

As the girl finished giving her statement, the head detective turned to me asked me if I was married. Then he carefully spelled out my name on the statement as a witness:

Kumari Rose Thomson

 Kumari is a title that means unmarried girl. After I signed the document, the detective asked me for my father’s name, so he could write it under my name. If I had been married, my husband’s name would have gone in that place.

It seems that as a woman, I have no legitimacy without the addition of the name of my male keeper. I’ve been in rural India long enough that this irritating formality didn’t surprise me—but it was still felt like a slap in the face. It’s as if girls and women can’t own their own lives.

Kumari, Kumari, Kumari

Kumari is the last name shared by the vast majority of girls in the villages of Jharkhand. After marriage, girls change their last name from Kumari to Devi: a title that signifies that a woman is married.

If you took a Yuwa team roster that consisted exclusively of last names the list would read: Kumari, Kumari, Kumari, Kumari, Kumari…. Endless Kumari. This led for some confusion at the tournaments in Spain, where it had to be clarified that No, the girls in Yuwa are not all related.

The use of the title Kumari is a constant reminder of the life path expected of girls in villages. Many parents believe that higher education, or anything beyond 10th standard[1], is pointless for their daughters. Why invest in education when the girl will get married in her mid to late teens? Why waste money on school when the girl’s future is to be a wife and a mother? For a family that struggles to feed all its children, it makes financial sense to prioritize a son’s education.

For a woman without education, temporary construction work is one of the few options available for supporting her family.

For a woman without education, temporary construction work is one of the few options available for supporting her family.

A girl is rarely asked about her own dreams for the future. Her future is not her own. The girl belongs to her family—until the day that ownership is transferred to her husband and in-laws.

Unexpected consequences

 As a state, Jharkhand is notorious for its high rates of child marriage. In Hutup village, I meet young women my own age who have two or three children. Many of the girls in Yuwa have older sisters who were married off before age eighteen. Because I see the girls of Yuwa everyday, however, I’ve come to think of them as exceptions to this cultural norm. I see them as immune outliers who bravely defy expectations. I forget that early marriage is still a very real threat for them.

After returning from the trip to Spain, the Yuwa football players became local heroes. These girls are the only people around who have flown in an airplane or traveled to a different country. As Kusum explained in her Tedx talk, after the trip abroad, “Everyone in the village knew us. Everybody knew my name. Everyone says girls in Yuwa are doing very good things.”anglian news3

anglian news4With the media attention and visits from big-shot politicians looking for good photo ops, the girls did more than just gain respect for their unconventional passion for football. These 13- and 14-year-old girls became attractive potential brides.

Yuwa’s full-time Female Mentor, a young woman from Jharkhand named Neha, meets with player’s parents regularly to discuss the girls’ futures. Some mothers revealed that in the wake of the trip to Spain, men have approached them with offers of marriage for their daughters.

One mother, a widow, told Neha about a marriage offer that came for her 13-year-old daughter from an older man in the army. Her extended family pressured her to accept the proposal because the suitor had a stable job and could offer financial security. She refused because she knows her daughter has different dreams.

Another mother told Neha about a tempting proposal that came from a man working for a computer company. Again, this offer promised the sort of financial stability which parents in villages dream of. This mother refused the proposal, even though in the past she has married off her other girls in their mid-teens.

When asked about her rejection of the proposal, she explained,

“My daughter is a very different kind of girl. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with her. But I will support her in what she wants to do. I knew she would be very angry about the marriage offer, so I didn’t tell her. She wants to continue her education.”


Rewriting the script

 A few weeks ago, I watched a team of 11- and 12-year-old Yuwa girls draw pictures of the woman they want to become. The final result was a winsome hodge-podge of teachers, police officers, “doctys” (female doctors), and bankers. This typical kids’ activity has a much more significant impact in this village, where the script for girls has already been written. There’s a novel message being reinforced again and again, every time a girl meets with her Yuwa team, six days a week, year-round: You can take charge of your life.

Girls in Yuwa's early morning English class.

Girls in Yuwa’s early morning English class.

The senior girls of Yuwa who have already rejected offers of marriage are living proof of that message for the younger players. They speak up to their parents about their goals, excel at school, and seize the opportunities in front of them. They report incidents of abuse and harassment in their villages, school, and homes because they know their own rights. These girls shake up the system and it upsets the bitter, beaten people who cling to it.

It is not easy.

But the little girls look up to these players and see the message in their actions. This is your body. This is your voice. This is your life. Own it.DSC_6168

One of the senior team captains gives a speech at the Yuwa Spring Talent Show.

One of the senior team captains gives a speech at the Yuwa Spring Talent Show.


One of the state's highest level police officers, Sampat Meena, visiting Yuwa to tell her story. Girls asked how to become officers themselves, how to protect themselves from boys and men who harass them in their villages, about their right to get married when they want, and how to prevent their parents from sending them to live at places they don't want to be.

One of the state’s highest level police officers, Sampat Meena, visiting Yuwa to tell her story. Girls asked how to become officers themselves, how to protect themselves from boys and men who harass them in their villages, about their right to get married when they want, and how to prevent their parents from sending them to live at places they don’t want to be.

Last week, I introduced one of the senior team captains to a visitor. “This is Sabitri Kumari,” I said as they shook hands.

Sabitri immediately made a face and shook her head. Then she corrected me with smile.

“No Kumari.


Just Sabitri.“




[1] Sophomore year of high school, for those of you in the US.

Sharah, Lioness of Hutup

Hello and happy new year! This is Rose, here to introduce my first-ever guest blogger. Sarah came to volunteer with Yuwa in mid-January as an English teacher and will be here until June. She has launched a new daily English class in Basati Village, in addition to teaching a second afternoon class in Hutup. She gets to her class via auto-rickshaw every morning at 6:30 am, helps train Yuwa goalkeepers, and can make a mean Italian pasta sauce using local ingredients. Sarah has quickly become the friend of countless Yuwa girls and gained a reputation for being tough and outspoken.

It’s fitting that the girls pronounce her name like the Hindi word for lion: Sharah.

One Month Later: Thoughts & Impressions During My First Month in Rural Jharkhand, India

Girls just want to have fun. And they do in Yuwa. 🙂

As I sit on the Yuwa House’s (Aka my workplace and humble abode) patio, basking in the sun and swatting away flies with the famishment of a hungry lioness, I question if it is possible for my written words to leap off the page and truly entrench themselves into your mind’s eye.

I often get asked to eat with the girls and their families.

First of all, let me introduce myself. My name is Sarah or Sharah as the young Yuwa girls pronounce my name. I was born and raised in Iowa, which for those of you who do not know (yes, there are many who do not know) is located in the Midwest of America; aka, the greatest area, period. Coincidently enough Yuwa’s Founder and Director, Franz, and Yuwa’s Coordinator, Rose, are both from the Midwest. Minnesota and Missouri to be specific. Which means we come from three states that line up perfectly on top of one another on the map. Needless to say we form an illustrious Midwestern spectacle in the tiny village of Hutup, where we all live together. Filling out our crack team and household are Neha and Ana.

Ana is from Spain and has a business mind like no young adult I have come across before. She speaks perfect English and gets the worst sunburns one can imagine!

Neha is easily the most impressive young Indian woman I have and most likely ever will come across in my lifetime. She is from the state of Jharkhand and is the Yuwa girls’ mentor. She has a mind of an accomplished scholar and the soul of a humble, mature woman. If I was better with words, I could write a book about Neha – she exemplifies the type of woman Yuwa hopes each girl in this area will become.

Nothing like a little afternoon footy amongst the beautiful hills. During practice there are always cows, goats, stray dogs, people, etc. walking through the pitch. 

Our oasis. This is one of the football pitches the girls play on. It is located on the compound where I live. You can see the Yuwa house on the back right. The blue building on the back left is the Yuwa Nike Game Changers classroom where girls learn English and study Math. 🙂

So many rad girls in Yuwa.

Speaking of Yuwa, what is Yuwa? Yuwa is a NGO that uses football as a platform to promote girl’s empowerment, health, education, and improved livelihoods as well as prevent human trafficking, illiteracy, and child marriage. Through gaining confidence the girls spark youth-led change, which transforms the culture around them through their peers, families, and communities.

Where is Jharkhand, India and what is the state like for girls growing up here?

Jharkhand is the 28th state of India and the last state to form in Nov. 2002. The social and economic indicators of Jharkhand are amongst the worst in the country. Even though the state is rich in minerals (Jharkhand accounts for 40% of the mineral resources of India), the inequitable distribution of wealth and the lack of political will plague the state.

A 2013 UN report declared the state of Jharkhand as the worst victim of human trafficking in India. Child marriage is very common and acceptable and illiteracy is rampant. When a girl is born in Jharkhand, her life has usually already been planned out for her. She is isolated— if she is not seen working in the house or fields she is harassed. She is illiterate—more than six in ten women here can’t read. She is married off—Jharkhand leads Indian states in child marriages. She remains vulnerable— an estimated 30,000 girls from Jharkhand are trafficked every year. She gets pregnant. The cycle is passed down to her girls and continues.

In its single-page entry on Jharkhand, Lonely Planet describes the state as follows:

“…there is widespread government corruption, sporadic intercaste warfare, banditry and Naxalite-Maoists (insurgent) violence, all of which contribute to the region being the poorest, least literate and most lawless area in India.”

Now that you know a little about Yuwa and the state of Jharkhand let me get to the juicy part….My thoughts and impressions during my first month here, in no specific order.

*Are men and boys in this state really THIS WORTHLESS???? They sit around in groups all day, drinking chai or alcohol, eating sweets, playing games, scratching their asses and staring gape-mouthed at girls passing by. It blows my mind every time I see this repeated type of behavior. Do they work? How to they make money to blow on all the chai, sweets, and alcohol?

*Duh, I should not be surprised to see a 12-year-old boy (or younger) driving a scooter. Boys do anything they want.

A lovely woman hard at work and squatting.

Need water to drink, cook, clean, and bathe with? Just find your local hand pump and bring a lot of buckets to carry on your head. Women and girls allowed only. (Get it? Because men do nothing.)

*Woman and girls do EVERYTHING!!! Wash the dishes, sweep the house, hand wash the laundry, lay the laundry out to dry, collect firewood far off into the distance, pick up cow poop, roll it into many small-ish balls, flatten them and hand plant them on the brick walls to dry so they can be used later to start a fire. Also woman make breakfast, lunch, and dinner, take care of the farm animals living on their property, clean the farm animal waste, sweep, wash, repeat. It is unreal. My favorite moment (sense the seething sarcasm) thus far was when I witnessed a mother, father and child walking down the road. The mother was balancing a 15 pound tub on her head filled with clean laundry and the father was carrying the small infant. At first I was semi-pleased – at least the father was taking care of the infant. Not even 10 seconds later the father flung the child at the mother and walked down the long road empty handed. Let’s recap – Mom is holding an infant in one arm and balancing a 15 pound tub on her head while the father does nothing. HHHMMMMMM. As one of my wise teenage students told me the other day “I never want to get married. You become a private servant when you marry.” You go girl!!!

*Dear god the sanitation situation in this state is repulsive! AHHH! If you live in a western country, are a clean freak and have no sense of adventure, it is safe to say you would not make it in this state or country.

Fresh coconut (Safe to drink and delicious)

*Eating street food, restaurant food, or household foods not cooked by you can be an adventure in learning about how tough your stomach is. I have a fairly fortified stomach thanks to all my travels. Even in Mumbai years back I had no problem. Well, rural Jharkhand is a little different. Do not eat the pani puri unless you want to spend the next day in bed.

*People of all ages squat for hours and hours and hours everyday…cutting veggies, preparing rice, sweeping, doing laundry, chatting, cleaning dishes…HOW? My legs shriek for relief from my body weight after 5 minutes.

*Speaking of squatting I must squat to use the restroom…thankfully I am squatting into a flush toilet that is essentially a hole in the ground, but heck, at least my thighs will be as strong as an ox by the end of my time here.

*Really, nearly 92% of the people in Jharkhand do not have access to a household toilet?? Yep, true story. People go anywhere and everywhere to relieve themselves.

*It is completely normal to pile 20 or more people into a tiny tuk-tuk. Clown cars have nothing on how many people here you can find in a moving tuk-tuk.

*Also, it is wholly common for 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 people to be riding on a scooter or motorcycle. Really.

*Oh, driving on the wrong side of the road is standard. My first foray into this common practice had me wondering if I should have updated my will as the cars came barreling down at us head on.

*All drivers are maniacs. Thank god I lived in Italy, otherwise I would be white as a ghost after each ride.

Our local market is a hopping good time. Everything is fresh and cheap. I can buy 1 pounds of tomatoes, 1 pound of potatoes, 3 bundles of cilantro, 1 pound of oranges, 1 pound of bananas, 1 pound of peas, 1 pound of apples, and 1 pound of lemons for perhaps $2.50 USD. Take that overpriced American supermarkets.

*If you are have white skin and light brown hair be prepared for open mouth stares and whispers everywhere you do. Really, everywhere. Thankfully Italy prepared me for this type of uncomfortable situation. Just wear sunglasses everywhere, walk with confidence and wear your don’t F with me face.

If I had to live with livestock I want baby goats!!

*Animals are everywhere. People live with lifestock in their homes. Not on their compounds, in their homes. Image for a moment that you sleep with all your cows, chickens, and even ducks. Yeah, I cannot imagine that either.

*Is it really ordinary to have a driver? And a cook? And a maid? I do not understand this concept.

*The newspapers here are not just dreadful, they are also amusing. If you have never read the Dil Se section of an Indian newspaper I highly suggest you send me your address and I will post you the cut out tomorrow. Pure amusement.

These are the cow poop fire starters I referred to. You will find them hanging out to dry on every brick wall available.

*Toffee (Or candy, as us Westerners refer to it) is given as change. So even if I do not get my 7 rupees back, at least I will be hopped up on sugar for the rest of the afternoon. 🙂

Medical practices in villages can make you believe the “doctors” studied in the 16th Century. This is a before and after picture of one of the Yuwa girls who had to get stitches. A village doctor used what I like to prefer to as “rope” to stitch up a girls arm. Thankfully we have a brilliant REAL doctor who took those stitches out and the girl is going to be A OK. Will probably leave a wicked scar though. No worries, scars are beautiful

*The Christmas sweater is the greatest invention ever. It is fuzzy, sparkly, brightly colored, outrageously popular and downright hideous. Thank you for my daily giggle, India. 🙂

Yuwa girls are eager learners. 7AM English class.

Oh my goodness, I could go on for another 20 pages, but you get the point…Life in rural Jharkhand is downright different. Nonetheless I am loving every minute thus far. The people and girls I spend my days with are so interesting and inspiring; it is an absolute treat working with them!

Basically, life is weird here, but dang is it good.


It’s Kusum!

Two months ago, 13-year-old Kusum volunteered to give a talk at TEDx Gateway in Mumbai. Franz had been invited as a speaker, but wanted to pass the opportunity off to one of the girls to talk about Yuwa in her own words.

I explained to Kusum that there would be over 1100 people in the audience and that thousands more might watch it over the internet. The other speakers at the event would include some of the most passionate, intelligent and driven individuals in India. And her talk needed to be English. Kusum’s English is good… but she still has a long road ahead before she reaches fluency. She has never read a chapter book in English.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked, after showing her some TEDx videos online.

She hardly paused before looking at me with an expression that clearly said: Well, duh.

Kusum (standing, far left) and her Yuwa team, circa 2009

Kusum (standing, far left) and her Yuwa team, circa 2009

Yuwa jerseys: good for football practices and rice-cutting.

Yuwa jerseys: good for football practices and rice-cutting.

For 6 weeks leading up to the TEDx event, Kusum and I worked together on her speech. We talked about what details to include, what was important for people to hear, and what fundamental message she wanted to share with everyone. She wrote her story by the light of kerosene lamp. Kusum’s family had electricity installed in their mud house last year, but power is spotty in villages.

After several drafts and revisions, Kusum created a hard copy of her talk. In less than a week, she had it memorized. She practiced in her home in the mornings and in the evenings, in front of her family and friends. She practiced in Yuwa English class and on Skype for my family. She practiced with Franz shining a giant flashlight in her face, to simulate the stage lights. She practiced with a microphone at Jharkhand’s World Toilet Day Event to an audience that wasn’t actually listening. 

Time for TED

We flew to Mumbai several days before the TEDx event to meet the other speakers and rehearse on stage. Kusum navigated a swanky cocktail and dinner party wearing a Yuwa track-suit. She carried around a martini glass of juice with a glowing ice cube and made casual English conversation with adults from around the world. I thought she might get tired or bored after a few hours. She didn’t. She talked with a man who recently became the first Indian in the world to circumnavigate the globe, alone, in a sailboat. It took him 150 days. She introduced herself to an Israeli composer, an acclaimed wildlife conservationist, a 15-year-old who has constructed a 3-D printer, the founder of a micro-enterprise development bank, a National Geographic photographer, and a woman who’s revolutionizing interactive museum technology.

Kusum leaned over to me and commented very seriously, “Everyone here is interesting.”

TEDxGateway Kusum clappingOver and over again, Kusum was asked if she was nervous for her talk. Again and again, she said she wasn’t. We found out that her talk had been scheduled as the last of the day; the organizers wanted her to be the grand finale. 

Raising the roof

Franz took to the stage first to introduce Kusum. He described how in the past year, since the trip to Spain, Kusum and her teammates have become youth icons. They have been featured in every national newspaper, a myriad of magazines and news shows, and acclaimed by Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra. We’ve estimated that in the past few months, their story has reached over 200 million people in India. 

Why is the story of the Yuwa girls so compelling? The struggles Kusum and her teammates face are shared by hundreds of millions of women and girls in rural India. Their struggles are not unique. When the girls of Yuwa confidently share their stories, they give voice to millions more who are not heard. Their triumph over the odds is inspiring.

“Kusum and her teammates are leading a movement of girls who are fighting for and finding their freedom, one football practice at a time. Ladies and gentlemen, my Indian super power…girl power…”, Franz began, attempting to refer back to a Marvel Comics executive’s speech earlier in the day that referred to a new female Indian superhero, “whatever she is, Kusum Kumari!”TEDxGateway Kusum shailesh photo

Franz gave her a high five as he walked off the stage, and Kusum walked into the spotlight. The audience went wild, making Kusum wait, smiling calmly, for at least 20 seconds before beginning.

I am Kusum.

I am 13-years-old.

I’m from Jharkhand.

I want to tell you how football changed my life…”

She shined. Her delivery was flawless and her voice never faltered. Although the auditorium was packed, I believe her when she said she really wasn’t nervous. Although I couldn’t see it from my place in the front row, many people were tearing up throughout Kusum’s talk. I was one of them.

The climax of the talk came when she delivered the following observation:

“In Spain, I saw that girls and boys were the same. There were no differences. Girls went everywhere that boys went, even at night.  [Big cheers and laughter]

“They did everything that boys do. I thought this was very good. [Big cheers]

“I want to feel free like the boys!”  [Audience went wild]

When Kusum came to her conclusion, the audience leaped to their feet and gave a rousing standing ovation, as if they had been waiting on the edge of their seats for their cue. The auditorium was a roar of sound. Kusum stood in the center of it all, beaming.

Back to the village

Weeks before, in preparation for TED, I showed Kusum a video of Malala Yousafzai’s speech at the UN. She was impressed by the story of Malala and excited that a girl was advocating for girls’ education; something Kusum wants to promote as she gets older. I pointed out to Kusum that her own story and her own TED talk held the very same message… and that she too was already reaching thousands of girls.

On the way back to Jharkhand in the airport bookstore, we bought Kusum her first chapter book in English: I am Malala.

As we went through the airport security, a female airline pilot approached us with the enthusiasm of a teenage Bieber fan. She explained that she had flown in from Delhi for the TEDx event and had been extremely moved by Kusum’s talk. As the pilot was speaking, a security attendant approached us, curious about the celebrity attention being given to this young girl, and asked the pilot who she was. The pilot smiled broadly and replied,

“It’s Kusum!”

I will post the video of Kusum’s TED talk when it comes online. In the meantime, you can read the text of her talk here.

Want to support Kusum and her friends? Click here!DSC_0362

How Football Changed my Life

On December 8th, 2013, Kusum Kumari gave the following talk (In English) in front of over a thousand people during the TEDxGateway event in Mumbai. She wrote it herself. 

Hello, my name is Kusum Kumari. I’m 13-years old. I’m from Jharkhand. I want to tell you how football changed my life.

In my family there are 8 members: my father, my mother, my three elder sisters, one elder brother, one younger brother, and me. My father is a farmer. My mother is a housewife. My two elder sisters got married when they were 17 years old and 18 years old. My one elder sister studies in college. My elder brother drives cars. My younger brother studies in school. I study in Standard 6.

Before I joined Yuwa, I went to school, but not daily. I didn’t think about my school much because I did not know the importance of school. I would go to classes 3 or 4 times in a week. If someone asked if I wanted to go spend one week or one month at my relatives’ house, I would say yes and leave school for a long time. I had fun with my relatives, but I did not go to school.

I did not have this idea that I could study and do something with my life. I didn’t think about my future.

I was shy. I didn’t talk to anyone. If I played in the road or sand I wouldn’t wash my body because I didn’t think it was important.

If someone came to my house and asked me a question, I would not give them an answer. I would not look at them. I would just walk away. No one in my village knew my name. Even my neighbor did not know whose daughter I was.

I was so happy to join Yuwa. When I first joined Yuwa, there were only a few girls. But after some time, there were many girls. We ran around with the ball and we had fun. I saw that other girls kept their bodies and their clothes clean, but mine were dirty. So I started to wash everyday and wear clean clothes. I made many new friends.
I started going to Yuwa classes. Franz and Yuwa teachers told me why education is important. I learned that if I get an education I could get any job I want. I learned that with education I could find different ways to make and save money and live better. With education I could go to other places and do something with my life.

So I started going to school everyday. I studied well and I worked hard. I stopped spending lots of time at my relatives’ house.

Girls on my Yuwa team work hard. I feel stronger when we are together. If one girl is upset or has a problem, we make her feel better. If one girl stops coming to Yuwa, we talk with her and tell her how much fun it is. If one girl is absent, we find her and tell her to come tomorrow.  We support each other.

To go to Spain, we needed birth certificates to get passports. My friends and I did not have birth certificates because we were born in our homes. Everyday, we went to the panchayat in a group. But the panchayet told us to give him more money. He said we were small and could not win and that the foreigners would sell us in Spain. He hit my friends and made us sweep the floor. We felt scared of him sometimes, but we went everyday. I was so sad during that time because I thought ‘I won’t get to go to Spain.’

The trip to Spain was the first time I had gone so far from home. It was the first time that I played on a big ground and turf. The girls on the other teams were very big and very good players. We lost our first match, but we wanted to win. So we worked even harder. We felt confident and supported each other. We won 3rd place bronze trophy and we felt so proud.

In Spain, I saw that girls and boys were the same. There was no difference. Girls went everywhere that boys went, even at night. They did everything boys do. I thought this was very good. I want to feel free like the boys.

When we came back from Spain, everybody knew us. Now, in my village everyone knows my name. Everyone says that girls in Yuwa are doing good things.

Now, if anyone asks me a question, I give him or her an answer right away. I am not shy. I go to the Yuwa House everyday for English class. I love to speak English.

After school I want to go to a university and study Social Studies. Someday I want to join an NGO that helps girls. There are still so many girls who do not go to school. They only work in the house and their parents get them married very young. I want to help these girls.

Already, I feel like I am helping. I heard my neighbor say that she wants her daughter to play football so she can be like me and move ahead in her life. This made me so happy.
Thank you!

Play Fearlessly

 (Photo by the wonderful Gari Garaialde/Bostok )

(Photo by the wonderful Gari Garaialde/Bostok )

July 2nd, 2013

San Sebastian, Spain

Minutes before the beginning of their second match of the Donosti Cup, the Yuwa girls looked ready for business. Their synchronized warm-up routine complete and their water bottles filled, they filed onto the ground alongside their opponents: a Spanish team[1] of notably taller girls. Around the football field, the Supergoats’ fan base consisted of the TZBZ students who raised the money for the trip, a flock of curious kids who had migrated from a nearby park to watch the game, professional photographers following the story, and several old Spanish men leaning against the back fence.

The girls looked calm and eager to prove that this was their game.

I, on the other hand, had difficulty standing still due to nervous excitement.

The day before, the Supergoats had lost their first match (1 – 3) to a team from Wisconsin (USA). As the first match of the long-anticipated tournament, tensions had run high. The girls played with their usual zeal—but their decision-making seemed affected by the high stakes and new conditions. The team from Wisconsin was big, strong, and organized. The Supergoats, unfamiliar with playing on such a large ground against a truly competitive team, failed to utilize the space or communicate with each other. 

Playing their first match against Wisconsin (USA). Photo courtesy of Donosti Cup.

Playing their first match against Wisconsin (USA). Photo courtesy of Donosti Cup.

The Supergoats did not lose their first match from lack of effort or will. Photo courtesy of Donosti Cup.

The Supergoats did not lose their first match from lack of effort or will. Photo courtesy of Donosti Cup.

It was a tough loss. But with all the new things to see in Spain, the team spirit rebounded quickly after leaving the ground. The next morning, Coach Sonu channeled their renewed energy into a strategy session and pre-match practice, utilizing the ground behind our dormitories. By afternoon, the girls were charged and prepared for their second match. 

Winning matches at the Donosti Cup was not the ultimate goal of this experience. In fact, for many people, it wasn’t expected that the Yuwa team would win any matches. Spain is the football mecca of the world, and the Donosti tournament annually attracts the most competitive youth teams around. The Yuwa team doesn’t even have the opportunity to play in a local league in India—it’d be surprising if they were able to keep up with their more experienced competitors.

When matched with the group of village girls from an Indian non-profit organization, opposing teams at Donosti did not expect a difficult game. When we spoke with other coaches at the beginning of matches, they were always gracious and excited to meet the team—but their attitude was sometimes patronizing.

But anyone who’s seen the Yuwa girls play knows that they are formidable fighters. I knew they could win. Franz and Sonu knew they could win. And even after their initial loss, the Supergoats knew they could win too.

Early on, it was clearly a fairly even match-up. The Yuwa girls, in their usual style, aggressively made up for their smaller size by throwing their entire bodies into getting behind the ball. The Spanish girls looked shocked upon being plowed over—I think the Yuwa girls were playing a much more physical game than the one to which the Spanish are accustomed. Or maybe they just weren’t expecting the Indian girls to get so pushy.

Neeta takes control of the ball. Photo by Gari Garaialde/Bostok.

Neeta takes control of the ball. Photo by Gari Garaialde/Bostok.

Photo by Gari Garaialde/Bostok.

Photo by Gari Garaialde/Bostok.

Shivani, in focus.

Shivani, in focus.

Chances are, you would lose in a 1 v 1 against Punam. Photo Gari Garaialde/Bostok Photo Gari Garaialde/Bostok.

Chances are, you would lose in a 1 v 1 against Punam. By Gari Garaialde/Bostok.

The fast-moving game moved into the second half still tied at 0 – 0. Sonu decided to make a switch on the field: a younger sister replacing her older sister’s position.

Laxmi Kumari is a striker. She’s the youngest and the smallest on her team. With huge eyes and spindly limbs, she doesn’t look like much of a threat. For years, she’s played in the shadow of her ultra-competitive older sister, Punam. Since joining Yuwa, Laxmi’s initially confrontational attitude and behavior with other players has improved dramatically. While in Spain, she adopted a habit of quietly imitating the sounds that foreign objects make: electric scooters, hand-dryers, and elevators. She also invented the Pudding and French Bread Sandwich. 

On the field, Laxmi turns into a miniature machine.

Laxmi Kumari, in the first match against Wisconsin. Photo by Donosti Cup.

Laxmi Kumari, in the first match against Wisconsin. Photo by Donosti Cup.

And so it was that in the middle of the second half, there was a quick pass to Laxmi. She gained possession with three Spanish girls on her tail and, in an instant, hammered the ball past the goalkeeper[2]. The girls exploded into cheers, some of them spontaneously somersaulting to the ground in joy. They rushed at Laxmi, collapsed on each other. Within minutes, the game was over. They had won.

This is what winning feels like. By Gari Garaialde/Bostok.

This is what winning feels like. By Gari Garaialde/Bostok.

By Gari Garaialde/Bostok

By Gari Garaialde/Bostok

There were many unforgettable moments on this trip, but this one just shines like the sun.

The following video compiles footage from the families’ send-off in Jharkhand, the press conference in Kolkata, matches at Donosti, and sightseeing in San Sebastian. For footage of Laxmi’s winning goal, skip to 3:20. 

Thank you for sticking with this blog despite the lag in posting! I will likely make one or two more posts about Spain. I’m eager to finish posting about Spain so I can start writing a bit about what’s been happening in Jharkhand (A LOT). Stay tuned.

[1] The Spanish team: Añorga

[2] See Minute 3:20 in the video for Laxmi’s match-winning goal

The New and the Marvelous

San Sebastian, Spain;
July 1st, 2013

Neeta Kumari looked out of place.

She stood on an elevated stadium platform alongside several white-skinned teenage girls wearing ultra-short shorts and t-shirts. Neeta wore her mother’s traditional red-and-white sari—her hair carefully adorned with plastic flowers and colored sticks. A man in a suit coat flitted around them with a microphone. He gave a quick introduction, and then passed the mic to Neeta. She squared her shoulders to face her 6,000-person audience.

In clear Hindi, she welcomed the audience to the 2013 Donosti Cup. Her voice was huge within the stadium walls.

In her finest sari, Neeta exuded a reverence for the ceremony and her place in it. Her teammates elected her as assistant captain based on her positivity, honesty, kindness, and ability to unite. She has been leading others on the football field and in the Yuwa classroom since she joined the program five years ago, faithfully finishing her housework early everyday to attend practice. At 14 years old, she has already resisted her family’s requests for her to enter into an arranged marriage, as two of her teenage sisters have already done.

Neeta was proud to be representing her team and her country—they were, in fact, the first team from India ever to compete in this massive international tournament. Suddenly it was the other girls on the platform, with their casual dress and bored expressions, who seemed out of place.

Neeta Kumari, at the Donosti Cup opening ceremony.

Neeta Kumari, at the Donosti Cup opening ceremony.

Neeta speaking on the platform (the crowd of 6,000 in front of her... It was a big group, but we didn't fill up that stadium in its entirety).

Neeta speaking on the platform (the crowd of 6,000 is in front of her… It was a big group, but we didn’t fill up that stadium in its entirety).

Out of India

The days of travel that led up to the Opening Ceremony of the Donosti Cup were a steady stream of new discoveries, surprises, and celebrity treatment. If you’ve ever traveled with a child, you know how their curiosity about the world can make the ordinary seem extraordinary. Everything is new—and therefore, fascinating. Now imagine that this child has grown up in an isolated village, has never encountered the sort of modern wonders that have become so standard in our society that we no longer think about them. Escalators. Moving sidewalks. Electronic hand-dryers. Miniskirts. Motion-activated sinks. Lip and eyebrow piercings. Metal detectors. Subways. Obesity. Hummers. Elevators. 8-lane interstate highways. Vending machines.

It was a joy to see these things through the girls’ eyes. Sometimes I tried to explain when they asked about something new and foreign. Most of the time, I would just laugh with them at the absurdity of it all. Because they were right. Electronic hand-dryers are funny.

There were challenges, of course: those we anticipated, and others that came as unexpected surprises. Because the girls have had next to no variety in their diets, it was a constant struggle to coax them into eating foods they couldn’t even identify (Pork cutlet? Stroganoff? Cheese sauce?).

As the official bathroom chaperone, I’ll say without going into detail that there was a serious learning curve in acclimating to the Western-style toilet and toilet paper. I’ll also say that I’ve never laughed so much in bathrooms as I did on this trip.

And then there were doors. In Jharkhand, the girls live in houses with heavy, wooden doors that—if they are ever closed—must be shut forcefully. It took longer than you would imagine to teach the girls to stop unintentionally slamming doors.

From the moment the Supergoats arrived in Kolkata, they were treated with a startling amount of respect. The Kolkata police force arranged the team’s transportation, lodging, and meals before the international flight. We bumped around the city streets in a police bus, the girls crowding the windows to glimpse the sidewalks chock full of fruit vendors, the yellow taxi cabs, the crumbling British architecture. The police chief himself met the girls; shook their hands, expressed his congratulations, admiration, and good luck wishes.

Even in the safety of the police escort, it was difficult for me to let my defenses down and relax. Out of practicality, I had developed a distrust of almost everyone while in Jharkhand, so that (especially when traveling with the Yuwa girls) I was constantly poised to bite someone’s head off. Or to be more literal, shoot someone in the face with pepper spray. I hadn’t slept on the overnight train, nervous that someone would try to mess with the girls.

I was still on edge when we arrived at the Salt Lake Stadium for lunch. The 22 of us were seated at a long table draped with a white tablecloth and set with silverware. Several police officers hovered around the table, ensuring that the girls were comfortable. As our plates of rice and chicken arrived, I thought the officers would sit down at a nearby table and eat as well. But as the girls dug into their rice, the officers continued to hover. They acted as attentive servers for the entirety of the meal—refilling water glasses, spooning mango pickle onto plates, dolling out generous second helpings.

I don’t know if the girls realized just how ironic the scene was… These grown men, in positions of great authority, were serving food to them in the same way the girls were always expected to serve everyone else.

Sonu, Franz, the Kolkata police chief, and Asha (Supergoat goalkeeper).

Sonu, Franz, the Kolkata police chief, and Asha (Supergoat goalkeeper).

The day in Kolkata was a whirlwind of media. The largest corportate sponsor of the Supergoats, the Spanish wind turbine company Gamesa, organized a massive press conference in a room of the city’s finest hotel. The event was complete with decadent bouquets of flowers, a spread of deserts and snacks, and access to the hotel’s five-star marble bathrooms (an adventure in itself). Journalists from magazines, newspapers, television, and online sources flocked to hear and tell the girls’ story. The amount of photographers was surreal—like something from a red carpet event. Eventually, the girls got tired of smiling and I got tired of reminding the girls smile. Sleep was a welcome relief.

The Gamesa-Yuwa Kolkata press conference.

The Gamesa-Yuwa Kolkata press conference.

Supriya takes a break from interviews to eat ice cream.

Supriya takes a break from interviews to eat ice cream.

The girls, goofing around at the hotel.

The girls, goofing around at the hotel.

The Supergoats and me, worn out from the camera flashes.

The Supergoats and me, worn out from the camera flashes.

Into Es-Spain

The girls noticed our flight attendants immediately. Several of them tugged my arm to point them out. As we stood in Kolkata airport security lines, the tall women in red hats clicked by us in high heels. With their pale skin and dramatic make-up, these women looked otherworldly, like they had just walked out of some mythical tale. Their presence added to the feeling that we were about to do something really magic: fly across the ocean to a land where all would be new and marvelous.

For months, the Yuwa staff (Neha—their mentor and teacher, Franz, Sonu—their coach on the field and in life, and myself) worked daily to prepare the Supergoats for what to expect in Spain. I wasn’t nervous about their ability to adapt and thrive, I realized as I watched them help each other fill out their customs forms. That said, I had more or less stopped trying to get them to correctly pronounce “Spain”. Despite persistent efforts and frequent repetitions, the Supergoats continued to say the name of the country in two syllables: es – spain.

Preparing for customs.

Preparing for customs.

Bags packed and hair braided, the girls check out the expanse of the Kolkata airport.

Bags packed and hair braided, the girls check out the expanse of the Kolkata airport.

Supergoat Captain Rinky is ready to fly.

Supergoat Captain Rinky is ready to fly.

Waiting. One major advantage of traveling with the Supergoats? They don't mind waiting, and they don't complain about being bored or uncomfortable.

Waiting. One major advantage of traveling with the Supergoats? They don’t mind waiting, and they don’t complain about being bored or uncomfortable.

Checking out our jet before take-off.

Checking out our jet before take-off.

After many hours of in-flight movies, picking at the packaged meals, window-watching, and lots of sleeping, our plane touched down in Madrid, Spain. The biggest dramas on the flights had been: learning the importance of popping one’s ears, spotting the pyramids as we flew over Egypt, a photo-shoot with the girls donning the flight attendant hats, and utilizing (en masse) the air-sickness bags tucked into the back of each seat.

The glamorous Air Emirates flight attendants were equally enchanted with the Yuwa girls... Aboard the airplane, the girls all had the picture taken wearing the "air hostess hats".

The glamorous Air Emirates flight attendants were equally enchanted with the Yuwa girls… Aboard the airplane, the girls all had the picture taken wearing the flight attendants’ hats.

Coach Sonu, chillin' over Egypt. Sonu is Yuwa's resident zen master: impossible to faze and always ready to make peace. Sonu was a hero on this flight for ensuring that the air-sickness bags were properly used.

Coach Sonu, chillin’ over Egypt. Sonu is Yuwa’s resident zen master: impossible to faze and always ready to make peace. Sonu was a hero on this flight for ensuring that the air-sickness bags were properly used.

Urmila, Air Hostess.

Urmila, Air Hostess.

Rinky, Air Hostess.

Rinky, Air Hostess.

Neeta (Air Hostess) and company.

Neeta (Air Hostess) and company.

In the next day, we would meet the individuals responsible for raising the funds that made the trip possible. Within two days, the Supergoats—most of whom have played the game they love six days a week for over five years—would walk onto a real grass football field for the first time.

Thanks for reading! More adventures–including the Supergoats’ Donosti Cup matches–will be up within a few days… Remember, if you’d like to continue supporting Yuwa’s efforts to put girls in charge of their own futures, please visit our Crowdrise site here.