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

Fair and Unfair

When I feel like I need a real cleansing, I walk into the fitness center of Ranchi’s only five-star hotel and use the deluxe shower in the women’s locker room. The water pressure and heat are pure bliss, and I leave the place feeling cleaner than I’ve felt in weeks.

The staff doesn’t ask me if I’m a guest. Nobody stops me. It doesn’t matter if my clothes are sloppy and I look disheveled. I can waltz in like I belong, be greeted like someone important, and leave without any incident.

I can do this because I’m white.

There is a hierarchy here that determines the way people treat each other. I know plenty would argue that this social order is complex—that it’s developed from colonial history, the caste system, tribal traditions, gender roles, and modern politics. But on the surface, it seems pretty straightforward. If you’re small and dark, you’re used, abused, and walked over. If you’re tall and fair, you’re treated with deference.

This isn’t a hard-fast rule. But that said, I know what I see. People who do manual labor and menial jobs, cycle rickshaws, farm—essentially, the poorest of Jharkhand’s population—have darker skin and tend to be short and slight. Those in positions of authority (politicians, police officers, businessmen, government officials) are significantly bigger and whiter. This isn’t just an imagined phenomenon or a coincidence: those in the army and police are specifically chosen for their height.

To prove that I’m not exaggerating, check out this ad for the wildly popular skin-whitening cream, Fair and Lovely. The dad’s line that sends the girl into tears is “I wish I had a son.”

There aren’t 1950s-America-era signs around Ranchi designating “Whites Only”… but I’d like to see someone with dark skin try to walk into that five-star fitness center looking as disheveled as I usually do. It just wouldn’t happen. And I admit, I take advantage of the ridiculous privileges that my appearance grants me. It’s an uncomfortable reality in Jharkhand, and my time with the Yuwa girls has allowed me to witness what it means to be at the bottom of this hierarchy.

Fair and Lovely and Sick of It

While there are definitely more advantages to being a white, blonde female here than drawbacks, I’ve got to take a minute to illustrate how I’m treated daily. Mostly, I’m stared at like I’ve come from a different planet. These are not subtle glances. I’m talking about open-mouthed, unabashed gaping. People doing double takes in the street, stopping in the middle of traffic, halting conversation to point me out. It’s impossible for me to be anonymous, although I do my best by wearing a scarf over my face and hair and donning sunglasses when I’m in a crowd.

The number of foreigners that go through this place is minuscule, and most of them are businessmen who stay inside their hotels. So although I can understand why I’m such a spectacle, it’s exhausting to be gawked at whenever I step outside. I didn’t realize how freeing anonymity could be until I couldn’t have it anymore.

I’m usually treated with the utmost deference, often bordering on celebrity treatment. My appearance has gotten me into utterly absurd situations. I’m often asked if people can take photos with me—in restaurants, stores, zoos, concerts, malls, bathrooms, offices. Sometimes people don’t have the audacity to ask permission and attempt to take sly photos in which I’m carefully framed in the background. It’s expected that I’ll skip through long queues instead of waiting like everyone else. I’m exempt from most public rules, and am often waved through security with a smile and a head bobble.

During one especially bizarre afternoon, I ended up as one of three chief guests at a school award ceremony[1]. I shook hundreds of hands, gave an impromptu speech about the importance of education (I’m pretty sure nobody understood what I was saying, so I wasn’t nervous), and handed out a bunch of certificates with cameras flashing throughout the entire event. Again, this happened because I’m white.

It’s gotten to the point that incidents like this no longer surprise me. I’m worried about what this is going to do to my ego in the long run.

The Other Side

Spending the majority of my time with the Yuwa girls, I get to see glimpses of the way they’re treated, and what’s it’s like for girls who don’t look like I do. While my white-blonde-foreigner status keeps me right near the top of the social ladder, the Yuwa girls rank near absolute bottom. As poor, dark-skinned, tribal, unmarried girls, they are rarely given basic respect when they’re out in public. I’ve seen them ignored, glared at, scolded for the pettiest of things, and disregarded. I’ve seen a feverish, exhausted girl be shooed out of a doctor’s office because the sandals on her feet were “too dirty”.  Several girls told me that they’re made to pay a cleaning fee at their government-run school—and then they’re forced to clean the school.

On an impersonal level, the hierarchy of Jharkhand is uncomfortable. When it gets personal—when you see kids you care about being treated like shit—it becomes indescribably infuriating.

A few weeks ago, I found out that many of our girls had been slapped, verbally abused, made to pay bribes, and forced to sweep the floor by officials at a local government office. They had been going to this office repeatedly for weeks, attempting to obtain their birth certificates. They need these certificates to get passports to compete in the Spain tournament, and hadn’t told Franz about the ongoing incidents of abuse.

I felt sick to my stomach when I heard this. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to hurt someone more than I wanted to hurt the cowardly worm who would lay a hand on these kids. What disturbed me more than the fact that a grown man in a government position was hitting 12-year-old girls: the girls didn’t consider this behavior out-of-the-ordinary. They’ve experienced the same treatment from teachers, principals, postal workers, uncles, fathers and brothers. They were used to it.


The girls confront the government official who’s been abusing them. After the media storm, all of them eventually received their birth certificates.

Screen Shot 2013-05-27 at 11.23.53 AMWhile the girls seemed ready to disregard this whole episode as normal, Franz wasn’t. Within two days, the girls’ story was on the front page of the 2nd largest English newspaper in India. The story went semi-viral on Facebook. People were angry—Indians and non-Indians alike. Supporters Yuwa in positions of power in Jharkhand put pressure on the local office responsible for abusing the girls. Eventually the man who had caused the most trouble was removed from his position—although not before sending cronies to one of the girl’s houses in an attempt to ‘discourage’ her family from pressing charges.

The optimist in me wants to believe that this incident and the outcry against it will help the girls realize they’re worthy of respect and demand it as they get older. I want them to be angry about the injustices they encounter daily. I want to believe that these tough kids can start to change the system in which skin color, status, and gender determine the way people are treated.

Neha, a young local woman working for Yuwa, agreed that the girls now seem more likely to unite against injustice. “But,” she added, “They need to know someone will stand beside them.”DSC_3157

[1] The other Chief Guests included Mr. ‘Frang Gostler (from the United States of American, U.S.A.)’ and a high ranking local police officer

Exceeding Expectations Always

Apparently, this is Jharkhand's new tourism slogan.

Apparently, this is Jharkhand’s new tourism slogan.

Last month, I came back to Jharkhand to continue interning with Yuwa.

If you read my description of Jharkhand from back in September, you know it isn’t the happiest place on earth. If you’re not included in the miniscule elite that controls the state’s natural resources, it’s just not an easy place to be. Most people live in poverty and are incapable of either finding or affording quality education. Those who do acquire some wealth, power, or education cling to their fortune and flaunt it in the form of extravagant luxuries and utter disregard for anyone with less prestige than themselves. Jharkhand is a mess, and I haven’t encountered anyone optimistic about improving the state’s levels of corruption or poverty anytime soon.

This is one of Jharkhand's biggest politicians and a member of Parliament, Here is simultaneously promoting himself and endorsing Poto Instant Potato Flakes.

This is one of Jharkhand’s biggest politicians and a member of Parliament, Here he is simultaneously promoting himself and endorsing Poto Instant Potato Flakes.

These men cycle down the highway every single day, utterly loaded down with black-market coal. Coal is one of Jharkhand's biggest industries.

These men cycle down the highway every single day, utterly loaded down with black-market coal. Coal is one of Jharkhand’s biggest industries.

Typical group of Hutup village rug rats. The girls are collecting cow dung to use as fuel.

Typical group of Hutup village rug rats. The girls are collecting cow dung to use as fuel.

But I wanted to come back to Jharkhand.

When faced with the prospect of extending my project, I had the option of going practically anywhere in the world. And I realized that what I wanted most was to return to Hutup village and the true-grit girls I met through Yuwa. Cambodia and Vietnam and Nepal were all places that were stunningly beautiful, (slightly) more functional, and definitely easier for a foreigner to navigate and enjoy. But I wanted to come back to the dysfunctional wreck that is Jharkhand, India.

As Charles Dickens said, “One always begins to forgive a place as soon as it’s left behind.”

Jharkhand’s dismal reality, however, makes Yuwa’s programs all the more important and exciting. With so little effective developmental work being done here—and absolutely no other programs exclusively for girls in this area—Yuwa’s impact is easy to see. The program is still small, but the effect it’s had on these girls’ lives is enormous.  13-year-old Rinki said it best when she explained the importance of her team to a visitor: “Before I joined Yuwa, people didn’t look at me or know my name. Now when I walk through the village, everyone knows my name.”

I was psyched to jump back into Yuwa action, and I unintentionally picked an especially exciting time to return. A team of Yuwa girls had been invited to compete in Spain’s largest international football tournament, the Donosti Cup[1], held in July 2013. The girls will be the first Indian women’s team in history to compete in Spain, which is renowned for having the highest level of football in the world.

The Supergoats

It might seem extravagant to spend so much money on plane tickets and travel expenses to send an entire team of rural Indian girls to Spain. I know how far a handful of rupees can go in Hutup village[2], and the money could easily support Yuwa’s regular programs for a long period of time. So why spend so much on a week-long tournament trip when most of the girls and their families don’t even get enough to eat daily? Why invest so much for a short-term experience?

Because these girls deserve the chance to show what they’re worth. They have grown up in a place where women are expected to give without receiving, girls’ self-sacrificing contributions are overlooked, and where hard work rarely results in… results. This will be the first time in their lives that their tireless efforts will result in something so meaningful.Image

LakshmiYuwa’s Donosti team (recently dubbed the Supergoats[3]) represents the most dedicated and outstanding girls in Yuwa.  The 18 girls selected come from seven neighboring villages, include two sets of sisters, and represent five different religions. They spend hours each day collecting fuel for fire, fetching water balanced on their heads, cutting grass for livestock, and cooking meals for their family. Despite the heavy weight of household responsibilities, they make time for the sport they love and consistently dedicate themselves to their team. These 18 girls were chosen after a careful process that took into consideration their commitment to improving themselves through Yuwa, school and practice attendance, football skill, and—importantly—their character. Every girl was ranked by her teammates based on five values: positivity, honesty, caring, selflessness and inspiring unity. The girls on this team were chosen as much by each other as they were by their coaches.Sildiri

ShivaniThe Supergoats practice six days a week on a dirt ground, save their own money to purchase football equipment, and take pride in their improved school attendance. The girls on Yuwa’s Donosti team are role models for thousands of girls in their region. They are proof that girls can play football. More importantly, they are proof that a girl’s place does not have to be in the house.

This is not just a scrappy team of underdogs. They are small, undernourished, unaccustomed to playing on grass, and reliant on generous donors to pay for their tournament and travel cost: but these girls are not to be underestimated. They are fierce football players, and they have already beaten some serious odds that life has stacked against them.Rinki

KusumPusapa2Participating in the Donosti Cup will allow the Yuwa girls to interact and share their stories with other young people from all over the world. It will also be the first time for them to compete against other teams that take the game as seriously as they do (I’m talking about girls who wake up at 4:00 in the morning to do their chores because they want to have practice at 5). For some of them, it will be the first time their families regard their daughters’ unconventional self-initiative as admirable and worthy of respect.DSC_2434

Franz (founder and director of Yuwa) applying duct tape to girls'  falling-apart football shoes before the Supergoats selection camp.

Franz (founder and director of Yuwa) applying duct tape to girls’ falling-apart football shoes during the Supergoats selection camp.

MeenaSupergoatsAfter spending four months over the past year in Jharkhand with the Yuwa group, I can’t help but feel a fervent sort of pride for the Supergoats. I really, really want this for them.

A group of people from Spain (TZBZ) are responsible for inviting Yuwa to Donosti, and they have taken the lead in fundraising for the trip. It’s still uncertain whether or not the money will be raised in time, but it’s been truly heartening to see such consistent and persistent efforts on behalf of the Yuwa girls coming from people half-way round the world who have never met them. TZBZ has been going above and beyond to gain publicity for Yuwa  in Spain–they’ve already been featured on television shows and supported by professional women’s football teams.

Out of the 400 teams competing in the Donosti Cup this year, Yuwa is being featured on the tournament's homepage.

Out of the 400 teams competing in the Donosti Cup this year, Yuwa is being featured on the tournament’s homepage.

In the meantime, the Supergoats have hit the ground running to prepare for this tournament. They know they’ll be facing some real opponents in Spain, and they’re determined to play their best when the time comes. This morning I got up at 5:00 am to run 10 kilometers with four of them: they chose the time and the distance.

Where Jharkhand leaves a heck of a lot desired, the Yuwa girls are–without a doubt–exceeding expectations always.

The Yuwa gang, celebrating Holi (Hindu festival of colors) on the Hutup ground.

The Yuwa gang, celebrating Holi (Hindu festival of colors) on the Hutup ground.

[1] This year, there will be 400 teams attending and 8000 players. It’s taking place in San Sebastian.

[2] Last time I went to the market, I bought 1.5 kilograms of tomatoes for 15 rupees. That’s approximately 30 cents in the US.

[3] Domestic goats are very common in and around the Hutup area. They routinely wander through the girls’ football practices and matches and are notorious for their early-morning bleating. Goats, however, have some seriously redeeming qualities: they are fast, wily, agile, smart (when compared to, say, sheep), and persistent to the point of being annoying. Yuwa’s Donosti team share many of these traits… hence the name Supergoats.

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.