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.”

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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.

Sabitri.

Just Sabitri.“

 

 

 

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

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