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.


Jai Yuwa!

Jharkhand, Definitely not Perpendicular

The Lonely Planet guide to India is a beast of a book, extensively covering the country from Chennai to Kashmir in 1244 pages[1]. There are exactly two pages of this guide book dedicated to the entire state of Jharkhand.

But Jharkhand (located in the North-eastern corner of the country) is no small or insignificant mass of land. It’s got 40% of India’s mineral wealth—mostly in the form of coal and ore—not to mention a massive lumber industry. This wealth has not trickled down to the people who live here, however, and it’s obviously not being utilized to put in infrastructure like quality roads, schools, health centers, or sanitation facilities. Jharkhand tops the charts of all the lists you don’t want your home state to be on: high maternal mortality rates, number of child marriages, malnutrition, poverty, trafficked people, and corruption. It’s a textbook example of a resource curse. The sizable profits from Jharkhand’s natural wealth remains in the inefficient hands of its greedy politicians.

When I mentioned to friends in Mumbai that I was planning to spend time in Jharkhand, I might as well have said I was going into the Heart of Darkness. Reactions varied from confused to shocked to wary. Jharkhand has gained a recent reputation in the film industry due to this summer’s release of a movie called The Gangs of Wasseypur. The film, set in the Dhanbad region of Jharkhand, depicts two warring families vying for control of mining and fishing industries. The place is portrayed as lawless and backwards[2], and I was jokingly and maybe not-so-jokingly reminded of this many times before I left the big city. To be honest, the dramatic responses about going to Jharkhand made me all the more curious and excited to visit—not to mention the fact that Lonely Planet practically skipped over the state. I didn’t know what to expect, and that was a little thrilling.

Yuwa 101

I came here to volunteer with the organization Yuwa: the same group that sent young coaches to lead the new football team in Dharavi (Mumbai). Yuwa was founded by Minnesota-native Franz Gastler in 2009. While teaching English in the village of Hutup outside of the capital city of Ranchi[3], Franz asked one of the girls what she liked to do in her free time. She said she liked to play football and wished she could play on a team. Franz told her that if she found some other girls who wanted to play, he could lead practices for them. The girls came out in flying colors, and practices became a daily occurrence. Franz saw the enthusiasm and dedication of the girls and recognized that a football team could be the perfect platform upon which to promote education and instill confidence. Eventually he quit his job with an Indian NGO and began devoting all his time to the creation of Yuwa.

For these rural girls, life is almost entirely centered around housework and farming. It is not uncommon for girls to get married at age 15. In the vast majority of families, boys are given preferential treatment in terms of money allocated for education, portions and quality of food, and access to health care. A girl will eventually cost her own family money in the form of dowry when she leaves to live with her husband. For those living in poverty, giving preference to boys is a financial and practical decision. Despite the many hours of work girls contribute to the household on a daily basis, it is the boys who will stay with the family and carry on the name.

There was a good deal of skepticism—and even resistance—in the community when girls began leaving their houses to play football for an hour and a half every evening. Shouldn’t the girls be working? It is common to see men and boys idle or at play in public areas; walk around Hutup and you’re likely to see groups of men lounging around tea stalls, teenage boys gambling with cards, and younger boys playing cricket or marbles. Women and girls, however, always seem to be working: cutting grass for the cows, planting rice, washing clothes and dishes, collecting water and cow dung, carrying massive baskets on their heads. If the women are ever idle, it’s definitely not in public spaces. Yuwa’s practices were unprecedented. There had never been organized recreational activities for girls.

Along with three young Indian men— two of which were Anand and Hirlal—who also dedicated time to coaching the Yuwa girls, Franz visited the houses of players with reluctant parents. Apparently there had also been fears amongst the community that Franz was going to traffic this girls out of Jharkhand—a concern that isn’t outlandish, given the high rates of trafficking in this area. Ironically, however, it is often girls’ family members (uncles or brother-in-laws) who are directly involved in trafficking coordination. Speaking with the families helped ease concerns and misconceptions. But what really changed local opinions about the Yuwa girls was their successes. In a short amount of time, the teams started traveling around the state to play in matches. Although they weren’t going very far, it was an opportunity to travel that they never would have had otherwise. And the Yuwa girls played good football. Since 2009, 17 of the girls have been selected to play on the state team, and three were selected for India’s National Team (which included flying to Sri Lanka for a tournament). A handful were chosen to participate in a coaching clinic in Delhi.One was accepted to a 6-month training program called Colorado Rush, although sadly her visa was denied. Six girls have spent time coaching the new Dharavi team in Mumbai. And just last week, two Yuwa girls returned from a 2-week-long football camp in Washington D.C., sponsored by the US State Department. The local media had a field day. The community now recognizes the good that Yuwa program has done, and takes pride in its girls’ acheivments.

The less glamorous but more profound achievements, however, are evident in the way players have changed since joining. Kusum, a 12-year-old Yuwa player with a huge smile and quick mind, explained that before Yuwa, “No one ever looked at the girls. Now they pay attention.” She said that playing football has given her a reason to take care of herself and her appearance. Before the team, she says she didn’t have any reason to keep clean or look nice. When she started going to practice everyday (which is held on a dry grass field near Hutup’s main road) she saw how the other girls looked and acted, and began taking the time to care for herself.

Now, Yuwa’s daily practices draw about 150 players between three different, nearby sites in Jharkhand, and between 15 and 30 players at the Dharavi site in Mumbai. There are several boys teams, but the majority of the teams are made up entirely of girls. Yuwa’s underlying principle is for the girls to take ownership of their own teams. Team captains keep an attendance log, which includes both practice and school attendance of each player, and manage a team savings fund with money for subsidized shoes and balls. This all encourages the players to be  accountable to one another and act as their own leaders. The Yuwa teams are not a single coach dominating a group of young athletes; they are groups of friends dedicated to enjoying and improving their football game and themselves.

For many of the girls, it’s more than game. It really is changing the course of their lives. Yuwa’s ultimate goal is to prevent girls from early marriage by keeping players in school. I’ve talked with girls who have bluntly told me that the reason they attend school everyday is because Yuwa encourages them to do so. By showing both the girls and—importantly—their families that furthering education can mean opportunities to successful futures, Yuwa has already prevented the marriage of its older teenage players.

Life in Hutup

I moved into the Yuwa house in early September. It’s settled near the edge of the Hutup village: a place teetering between rural and urban, where the sounds of the nearby highway disrupt any ambiance of remoteness.  Most people here get by by farming small plots of land (rice, corn, wheat, and potatoes), keeping livestock (cows, water buffalo, goats, and chickens), and working temporary manual labor jobs. The amount of trash heaped along the sides of the unpaved roads seriously mars any chance Hutup had of being picturesque, but it does have some things going for it in terms of scenery. When it’s windy, the rice fields look like lakes of green waves. The sky seems more expansive here, and the cloud formations can make for spectacular sunrises and sunsets. At night, hundreds of fireflies congregate in the trees, reflecting the spread of stars above. There’s a river nearby, and on clear days you can see mountains in the distance.

The Yuwa house has become a sort of community center and second home for the group of girls who originally started Yuwa. The walls are plastered with drawings, short compositions in English, football photos, and news clippings about Yuwa. A small desk in the main room is cluttered with trophies and medals won at various matches, and the bookshelves are crammed with early-reader books, dictionaries, atlases, and educational games. On any given night, three to five girls sleep in the spare bedroom after cooking dinner of oatmeal, chapatti, and a vegetable dish.

Although most of the girls have basic, conversational English and I can speak a handful of Hindi words and phrases[4], communication is a challenge. Franz (who speaks Hindi) is currently in the US, so the girls and I have had to be even more creative and persistent when talking about anything complex. Still, we’re able to connect over things like Justin Bieber, laughing at my inability to make circular chapatti, killing mosquitos, and—of course—football. I’ve gotten to the point where I feel comfortable walking down the road and strolling into the girls’ houses.

I’m going to wait until my next post to describe some of the projects I’m working on for Yuwa, but my days look something like this: I wake up around 4:45 and fumble around collecting teaching material and making myself look presentable. Ride over to a nearby village of Sildiri with coach Anand, and teach a small English class to some Sildiri football players. Come back to Yuwa house around 8, and spend the day reading on the roof, preparing for Khan Academy (more on this later), or wandering about Hutup. I help organize several students who are participating in math program on Nook tablets between 3:30 and 4:30, and then walk over to the football ground for practice. While at practice, I try to burn off my extra energy, remember all the girls’ names, and try not to twist my ankle as I attempt to keep up with some seriously skilled 12 year-old footballers. After practice, a small group of the girls head back to the house with me. We cook dinner, do small art projects, and listen to music. The power will invariably go out at least twice.

The days in Hutup get long: there’s a lot of hours between 8 and 3:30. My mobility is much more restricted than it has been during the rest of this trip, and I’ve had to adjust to change. I also feel more conscious of my foreign-ness in Jharkhand than I have anywhere else in India, but the Yuwa players have done a wonderful job of making me feel welcome. Many of the kids in the area seem to know my name now, and nothing makes you feel more welcome than some five-year-old screaming your name from across a field when you walk down a road. 

Another note on my name: the way people pronounce “Rose” here sounds similar to the Hindi word that means “everyday”. So several of the players have taken to addressing me as “Rose – Everyday!”

Thanks for reading this extra long post. I’m going to try posting shorter entries more frequently. There are many small, good moments that deserve mention. Stay tuned!

[1] I’m not traveling with this book, by the way. Not worth the extra weight.

[2] I  saw Gangs of of Wasseypur Part Two in theaters, making it my first Indian cinema experience. It was in Hindi and there were no subtitles. I thought that I was more or less understanding everything, until the last five minutes. And in that one, quick scene some key things happened, and I realized that I has missed all the film’s major plot points. Oh well. I liked the soundtrack.

[3] Yes, Ranchi is pronounced as “raunchy”. It makes for some good names like The Ranchi Club.

[4] My favorite word so far is good-goody. It means tickle or ticklish. Although I also really like the words mutlub and lugbug.