Sunita Kumari opened the May 17th Women Deliver Conference plenary session, “Girl Power in Play: Leveling the Playing Field for Girls and Women.” Standing on stage in an athletic uniform, the 17 year old from Jharkland, India introduced herself by saying that her father is a farmer and her mother died last month. She then took a deep breath, cracked a smile and identified herself as a footballer.
“People think girls should not wear shorts. They think girls should not go outside and play,” she said in a slightly hesitant voice that consistently grew bolder. “But my friends and I, we do not care what people think.” Breaking all community norms and expectations, Sunita both plays and coaches football. She was also a member of the first Indian football team to compete in Spain.
— Divya Datta (@divyadat) May 17, 2016
Sunita attributes her mental and physical strength to sports, and I can relate. When I was 15 years old, I started playing tennis. Learning to sprint across the court in pursuit of flying balls helped me gain confidence, perseverance and assertiveness. I developed a strong sense of self and learned decision-making and negotiation skills. Fostering healthy relationships with peers and adults, I learn how to set goals and navigate disappointment. Although I wasn’t conscious of it then, I now realize that I was able to cultivate my power off of the court precisely because I had discovered my power on the court.
In my work with adolescent girls, I sometimes use sports as an entry point for life skills programming. While it can be an ice breaker, it can also introduce taboo topics like sexual and reproductive health and gender based violence. Other times, the sport itself is enough to initiate change. When girls play sports, they break gender stereotypes and community expectations. During the plenary, Moyo Dodd, member of the Executive Committee of FIFA and chair of its Task Force on Women’s Football, said that “perhaps there is no better way to teach boys that their sisters and their female friends belong in the world just as much as them than to look across the field and see girls there with them.”
Sunita agrees. “Many of my school friends got married and one had a child,” she said when sharing how sports impacted her life. “If I hadn’t played football,” she added solemnly, “I might be married too.”
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Featured photo credit: Women Deliver