For most Nepali women, to even consider wearing shorts is progressive.
In our latest video, we see one of our featured READ center members, Sunita (16 years old), sporting her classic football uniform of a jersey and shorts. Young girls often look on during these games, shy, from the proverbial bleachers in traditional kurta dresses. Occasionally playing football with her friends in her neighborhood, Sunita mostly knew of football (known as soccer in the US) through the young boys she played against. “I never thought that women could play football. No girls ever played in my [village] before,” says Sunita.
When local football coach Sailendra Malla realized there was a desperate need to bolster young women’s confidence in the often overlooked Acham District in western Nepal, he knew he had to do something. Joining up with Kalika READ Center, he aimed to find different avenues to help young girls and women develop leadership skills and build self-esteem. As Sailendra knew community members saw the Center as a safe space for their daughters, he felt this would be the perfect place to offer the program. With a steep 37% illiteracy rate in the area, sports were one way to not only get women engaged in healthier skills building activities, but also open up choices for furthering schools, and eventually, one day – attaining employment and jobs.
It isn’t just economics that a young football enthusiast would be up against, however, it’s also gender dynamics. Intense, hot weather coupled with defying the gender norm of wearing shorts and a teeshirt takes getting used to. It took convincing from Sunita’s coach to feel comfortable playing in gear that helped her become a better athlete.
“I used to feel very shy wearing shorts. I used to play wearing a long skirt. It was hard to play wearing the long skirt. After a few months, my coach motivated me to wear the football uniform – shorts and jersey. Now, I feel I am a real football player.”
Young women like Sunita often drop out when the time comes to move into secondary school due to high costs and sustained cultural norms. Having never seen women play on a football team, let alone see a football game on TV, Sunita was elated to be welcomed to the world of sports by her peers. Sunita’s parents, however, did not initially champion her participation in the sport.
“At first, my family didn’t allow playing football. I had to convince my parents and I finally got permission to participate, but I needed to complete my house work first, like, cooking food for my family.”
As a member of the Kalika READ Center for just over three years, Sunita was well acquainted with the many resources in the library and began occasionally playing football games with other kids and teens in her neighborhood outside the center. As a safe place for her to build various skills such as literacy and computers, Sunita has already found the Center to be a refuge for learning. Once Sunita joined the football program at her local READ Center, things really began to change for her.
“When I started to play well, my family was inspired and they allowed me to play football without restrictions.”
Over time, Sunita’s parents saw the value of her participation. Once a shy girl slated to be married off at a young age like many others in her village, suddenly Sunita found herself building confidence through healthy competition as her friends and family cheered her on. Sunita was dedicated to the sport and with regular practice and study, her love for football brought her to surpass her expectations on the field and in school. One day, Sunita got the wonderful news that so many young students vie for: she had been granted a scholarship to further her studies at a locally prestigious school. Elated, Sunita’s parents were now in full support of her passion for sports and the game of football.
“My parents and family inspire me to play now.”
Proud of her own hard work and dedication, Sunita now has a future full of promise, a healthy body and a career to look forward to. “After participating in football, my body is fit. I received a full scholarship, and I feel safe that I can complete school now. If I didn’t get the chance to participate in the program, I would be forced to marry. I might even be married and I would be a housewife now. I wouldn’t be able to continue my education because my family is not able to financially support my studies.”
“This school where I am currently studying is great. I never thought I [would] get the chance to study there because this school is a dream school for most here. I am lucky that I have the chance to study and it has been possible because of football.” The next step, Sunita believes, is continuing to impact other girls so they can have better futures.
I think girls should get the opportunity to play football. It creates many opportunities, like the scholarship I received.”
With a variety of programs providing engaging and safe spaces for women of all ages, READ Centers offer classes focusing on building literacy, technology, business competency and women’s leadership trainings. Join Sunita in her hope for brighter futures for young women all across South Asia by making a donation today!