July 30 will be a red-letter day for over a dozen girls in the Mahalondi gram panchayat area of Kandi block in Murshidabad, as they will travel out of their village to play their first football match.
“It will be in Behrampore. Our opponent will be a team from Plassey,” one of the girls told Metro.
Practice is on thrice a week, ignoring rain and slush. And on Wednesday, the team received its kit when five of the girls travelled to Max Mueller Bhavan in Calcutta, where the German consul general handed them their jerseys, boots and socks.
Goalposts and footballs have reached the NGO that is putting the team together.
The girls heard consul general Manfred Auster talk about women’s empowerment and the ongoing women’s World Cup. “We had no idea there was a World Cup for women,” a girl said, wide-eyed.
The girls are from a place where gender-based violence is rampant. “The area is notorious for child marriage and teenage pregnancy, not to mention trafficking. We started work there when distress calls reporting child marriages spiked during the pandemic,” said Namrata Karamchandani, co-founder of Anahat for Change Foundation, the NGO that is putting together the team.
With little education and entertainment, elopement is high, as is desertion by husbands after pregnancy. “Families are also interested in early marriage as boys leave for the Gulf in search of work. Marriage and fatherhood are thought to be the only ties to pull them back,” she said.
The Behala-based Anahat started with training teenaged and just-into-teen girls in making reusable sanitary cloth pads as a means of livelihood. The football project started last year.
“Word got around through an associate, the Mahalandi Institute of Child Rights Organisation, a village-based NGO. Football gives the girls a chance to break a local glass ceiling as also build team spirit to fight issues off the field together,” said Namrata.
Initially, there were catcalls and comments from men who crowded around the field to watch the spectacle. Many girls, especially those from Muslim families, wore leggings as they were too shy to wear shorts. The police had to patrol during practice hours. Now the crowds have thinned.
There are other issues like boys playing cricket on another side of the field. “The ball kept getting hit in our direction and a girl even got injured. Local elders had to be requested to step in,” Namrata said.
The coach is a local footballer. The NGO keeps an eye on attendance. “We speak to the families if a girl is away from practice for long,” Namrata said.
Post-practice refreshments have been started, which has helped in boosting attendance. “The families are all agricultural labourers. In harvesting season, most girls stay away as they have to help in the fields,” she said.
The project started with 30 girls but was forced to take in one more. A girl, who stays the farthest from the practice ground, was refused, but she kept cycling to the field, begging to be let in.
“When she even bought a jersey seeing the team members get one, the coach relented. She is one of the best players in the team,” Namrata said.
Another has spun a yarn about a fiance to keep off marriage offers.
The girls are unaware of what doors football can open for them but are looking forward to travelling to far-off places. That by itself is a goal worth running, dribbling and even getting tackled hard for.