Every child deserves to reach his or her full potential, but gender inequality in their lives hinders their ability to do so. Inequality is evident in textbooks, homes, media, people who provide care or support among other institutions. With respect to unequal opportunities, girls are the most disadvantaged. Girls are more likely to drop out of school, have a lower rate of survival, and show lower participation in the workforce. The global gender gap report (2023) shows that with respect to economic participation and opportunity, India, ranked at 127 out of 146 countries has attained less than 40 percent parity (36.7%). UNDP data shows that the gender gap between men(70.1%) and women(19.2%) in workforce participation was 50.9% in 2020.
Girls also face a disadvantage in health, nutrition, education and restrictions on mobility. In many parts of India, sex selective abortions continue to take place. Speaking to 30 girls in rural Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu reveals that a majority have heard and faced period-related restrictions at homes, are given less preference and more household chores as compared to their brothers and other male counterparts.
Sports is also a territory where gender bias is quite visible. Many women are discriminated against men in majority of the sports and sometimes excluded from participation. Even if they do participate, gender pay gap, bias in recognition of sportspersons, lack of women coaches, fear of harassment, lack of good sponsorships, financial constraints, lack of family support, other systemic and personal barriers limit women’s autonomy and advancement in sport, restricting their growth and scope compared to men. While girls in both rural and urban areas face discrimination, rural girls are found to quit sports more often because of transportation and inadequate funds (Abhyuday,2021).
Yet, amidst these issues exist stories of empowerment and resilience, there is still hope. One such story of hope, is that of Kavitha, our Coach in Training (CIT) who trains the Playquity cohort of girls at Arasampattu, Tamil Nadu in Ultimate frisbee, and her story shows us the transformative potential of sports, and education. Apart from running frisbee sessions, Kavitha also teaches English to young boys and girls, and indoor sessions to nurture them into young leaders.
I had heard about and met Kavitha previously when she visited Pudiyador in Chennai, and through meetings online, but I was fortunate to see her life and work as a coach and teacher close-up for a week while on a work trip to Arasampattu, a village located in the Tiruvannamalai district of Tamil Nadu.
The evening that my colleague and I reached, we participated in a library session. Kavitha holds these indoor sessions 2-3 days in a week, apart from the frisbee sessions. As part of the session, the girls read storybooks, and shared lessons they’d learn from the story. Yet, that evening, we played charades, acting out the title of books. On Kavitha’s instructions later that day, the girls sat in teams of 2, sharing chart papers, drawing themselves as leaders that they wanted to be. We had a lot of aspiring teachers, IAS officers and policewomen in the room that evening. Many of the children were inspired by the books they read in the library sessions as well as the leaders that Kavitha had taught them about.
Speaking to her cohort opened up many conversations such as their perspectives on gender equality within their immediate homes and communities, favourite tv shows, favourite food and how festivals are celebrated here as compared to cities. Three days later, I asked Kavitha if I could interview her. I urge you to discover with me Kavitha’s life story and her motivation behind a simple smile that she greets you with.
AM: Hi Kavitha, could you tell me about yourself and your background?
K: I was born here in Arasampattu. My family relied on agriculture for our livelihood. I studied at the local school here from class 1-8. When I was in the 9th standard, I was enrolled in a girls school in the city, and it was a new experience for me. I was always a good student. My father was my inspiration, because, despite being physically challenged, he was independent and always managed to work. He was my constant source of support. He constantly encouraged my siblings and me to study, and he was the first person who taught me how to study English. A lot of people here looked up to him, because he was always helpful.
However, after I completed class 10, my father’s health deteriorated and he passed away. Troubles in the family caused disturbances in my education, in addition to the pressure of marriage. I got married when I was 17 years old and had my daughter when I was 18. While my husband’s family accepted me, adjustment to married life was challenging. Due to the amount of debts accumulated, I had to start working in agriculture, but the income was not sufficient. Thus in a 4 year period starting then, I had to change 3 different jobs, in order to be able to spend more time with my family and balance it with my household chores. This period, however was not without trouble, as my family discouraged me from pursuing a job. Due to various troubles and disagreements over a period of time, I decided to relocate to my maternal house permanently.
In October 2021, my friend who works in Chennai, put me in touch with an NGO called ‘One All’, which works on empowerment through sport. I initially joined ‘One all’ with the intention of supporting my family back home. However, working with children led me to love my job. Working with children became more than just a job, as I was involved in nurturing them into valuable members of society. My colleagues Prabaakaran and Sumesh Kannan here taught me all the basics of working with children as well as documentation. I faced two challenges: being away from my children, and English as a medium of communication. However, when I started learning english through YouTube and started to read books, it became easier for me with time.
Around the same time (in October 2021), I joined a frisbee club team (called Blitzkrieg Ultimate), who taught me to play Ultimate frisbee. I realized that I discover my strengths when I am encouraged. The support from my coworkers and friends encouraged me to excel. I began to participate in tournaments and pick up the game. While I was easily exhausted initially, with support and practice, I began to improve.
We now look at how Kavitha became a part of the Playquity family.
AM: How did you become a coach with Playquity?
K: Leaving my children back in Arasampattu meant that I could not speak to them regularly. I longed to return to Arasampattu to teach, however, my organization had no plans of expansion. Although I was well-supported at my job, I decided to join Pudiyador in August 2022, as it had plans of starting a new Playquity project in my village. Immediately after I joined Pudiyador, I undertook frisbee training at the annual Playquity ‘Academy’ workshop. This experience was empowering, as my notions about gender roles changed, and I was able to speak up and assert myself. I was always raised with the thought that men are above women. At Pudiyador, I realized that this idea was not true, and that women are indeed equal to men. As a child, I did not know much about the world around me. Using strategies and drills that I learnt from Academy, I was motivated to bring Playquity to Arasampattu to teach something new to the children here. With the support of Ashwini and Swapnaa at Pudiyador, I started teaching frisbee in September 2022, determined to provide children with the opportunities that I did not have as a child.
5 months later, in March 2023, I also began teaching English to boys and girls in classes 1-8 with ELFlearn. I spent a lot of time preparing for my English and frisbee coaching sessions. Despite various challenges (outlined below) including different levels of understanding among students, I found joy in their progress and newfound confidence.
AM: What is your coaching philosophy / leadership style?
K: I like to lead by example. I prepare myself before sessions and I always try to be enthusiastic. Even while speaking to the kids, not only do I encourage respectful communication, I ensure not to use disrespectful language towards the kids, as they can easily pick up bad habits. I firmly believe that I should never be lazy, and I complete my warm ups properly in addition to making sure that the girls do too, without taking its benefits for granted. Even though I was initially uncomfortable, I began to wear t-shirts and pants, to encourage other girls to do the same. After I started to, some of the girls began to wear t-shirts and pants. Even if I was shy, I used to run and play the game along with the kids, as well as hold competitions between myself and the girls, so that they would become more comfortable running. I also enforced a rule that the girls should wear t-shirts on Saturdays, and they began to follow it.
Any conflicts while playing are usually resolved by the girls during the spirit circle*( After a game, all the players form a joined circle. Spirit circle is a space that involves post-match feedback, conflict resolution, recognition of players, etc.). However, I observed that they initially used to misunderstand each other despite discussing their differences. It took me a while to change their perspectives. I used analogies, such as ‘perception of the numbers six and nine’, to help shift their perspective and increase their understanding of each other. My goal through these sessions is to ensure that girls pick up not only ultimate frisbee skills, but also life skills such as team work, communication and conflict resolution.
AM: What is the best part of your job?
K: I like that I am able to change girl’s thought patterns, qualities, and change their world view about gender roles. Through my work on their transformation, I wanted to give my community something new and different. Spending time with the kids is enjoyable, as they are very kind and warm to me, fostering a sense of family. Among all the jobs I have had, I feel truly respected here.
AM: What were your initial challenges when you began to play and coach?
K: I was about 27 years old when I started playing Ultimate frisbee(in Chennai). Prior to learning frisbee, I had never played a sport or exercised before. My physical activity was limited to household chores and responsibilities. Playing was initially hard. Initially, when I started playing, especially as a mixed gender group, I was uncomfortable and shy playing and stretching. Running was also particularly difficult. It was a new experience for me, however, with time, I understood the game.
I also faced trouble with meetings, as English was the medium of communication. I often could not absorb myself fully in discussions during meetings. Yet, on a positive note, I was only able to learn English due to the challenge I faced. I also started watching videos and reels on Instagram with the aim of improving my English skills.
When I began Playquity operations in Arasampattu, I also feared the potential consequences if a girl were accidentally hurt by the disc while playing. I was concerned that parents might fight or stop sending their kids altogether. My primary goal was to ensure that the children played carefully to avoid any accidents and maintain a safe environment.
I conducted sessions at the local school ground, which was an ideal space, due to it being closer to tuitions and their respective homes for some girls. Initially, we had young boys (around 12-13 years old) in the village who used to cause trouble for us while playing. Boys used to occupy the ground that we used to play in. Despite trying to resolve the problem, they did not listen. Thus, I had to become more firm with them. However, over a period of time, the English sessions allowed some of them to understand what my motives were, and they stopped causing as much trouble. At times, when boys occupied the ground, I managed by making the girls do practice throws in the available space, and then we used to play a match/game when the boys left.
AM: What future do you envision for your cohort?
K: I envision a future for the girls, where they develop a deeper understanding on how to navigate various situations boldly and avoid conflicts. I would like them to give more importance to sports and implement their learnings from the playquity sessions. I have made running and jogging compulsory for the girls now, to help them understand that the drills and exercises strengthen them. I do believe that they have begun to understand the benefits slowly.
I also want them to become leaders, and realise their true potential as opposed to being oppressed or forced into household duties. They should be able to break away from traditional gender stereotypes, and undertake better roles and opportunities in diverse fields regardless of any opposition. While I recognize that I am able to pursue my dreams and be free, many women in my village are not yet able to fulfill their dreams or confident enough to take on responsible roles. This is true especially for married women. I want my cohort to succeed in the field of their choice, become leaders and set an example for other girls from the village to create many more leaders.
With Kavitha’s experience, we also understand the importance of parent’s influence. Abhyuday(2021) found that girls are more likely to participate in sport if their parents agree. Participating in sport can be an empowering experience for women, making them physically stronger, more competent, and more independent. It is important that we recognize the value of girls by investing in and empowering them with sport, education and life skills. This effort has to include men, women and boys. In the next blog, we will take a look at how Kavitha’s life has transformed since Pudiyador and her future plans.
- Abhyuday. “Gender Discrimination in Indian Sports.” Issue 5 Int’l JL Mgmt. & Human. 4 (2021): 963.
- “Global Gender Gap Report 2023.” World Economic Forum. Accessed February 6, 2024. https://www.weforum.org/publications/global-gender-gap-report-2023/in-full/benchmarking-gender-gaps-2023/.
- Singh, Mejar. “Gender Inequality in Sports in India. Issues and Causes.”