When the Dharavi girls’ football team took to the field for their daily practice earlier this week, two of the players hauled a giant bag in between them. The other girls sprinted ahead to the designated practice area, some bouncing up and down with excitement once they reached their destination. I met them there, curious about the reason for the extra enthusiasm today.
It was Mahalaxmi who answered my question before I had asked it. Grinning broadly, she nodded to the large bag she was helping to carry: “SHOES!”
The next forty minutes or so were spent sorting out sizes, passing out knee-length socks, undoing and redoing laces, and trying to convince the youngest girls that yes, cleated shoes are supposed to feel tight around their feet. The older girls were unanimously thrilled with the acquisition of true footballers’ gear, and immediately began dribbling, kicking, and passing with new fervor. The younger ones, accustomed to playing barefoot, were a more skeptical—they squirmed and made faces upon first feeling the sensation of athletic shoes. The practice turned out to be more of an introduction to football shoes than a real practice, but the girls left the field with the same joyful, chaotic energy with which they had arrived.
I’ve been attending the Dharavi girls’ practices about five times a week since I arrived in Mumbai on June 20th. And in fact, these girls are the very reason I came to Mumbai. I am a recent graduate of Hendrix College (Arkansas, USA), and I am conducting an independent project on the use of team sports to empower girls. My project is being funded by a grant called the Walker Odyssey Fellowship. Over the next six months, I will be meeting and volunteering with different organizations that specifically use sport as a foundation for girls’ development throughout India and Cambodia.
When I first encountered the Dharavi team, it was difficult to see beyond the obvious challenges that the group faces. The players are bold, curious, and occasionally unruly girls (plus two boys) ranging from ages 7 to 19. The Yuwa coaches, who have come all the way from their rural homes in Jharkhand to help found the Dharavi team, do a truly admirable job of leading exercises and drills every single day—but it can be challenging to channel the girls’ energy into a structured practice. Additionally, the monsoon has created an extra obstacle by turning their playing field into a wide expanse of muddy puddles. There’s not much open space, and practice matches are usually cramped.
As I got to know the girls, however, I’ve come to understand how significant this team really is for each of them. Before the team existed, the girls would stay in their houses (which usually consist of either one or two rooms) after school and help their mothers with the chores or watch television. They didn’t go out, many of them didn’t have a group of friends, and their parents didn’t like them to wander around the neighborhood for fear of them straying too far. The Dharavi team has created a safe space for these girls. It is an outlet in which they can run, play, have fun with their friends, and act as leaders during drills or stretches. It is something consistent that they can look forward to every day.
It is bittersweet for me to say goodbye to the team, but I’m grateful that I’ve had this opportunity to befriend such a welcoming and spirited group of kids. Each one of them is testament to the potential of sport to enrich and empower lives. I’m happy, too, that I was here to see the distribution of the shoes—I know that they’ll be put to good use, and I hope that the players’ mothers are forgiving of the mud that’s certain to cling to this new footwear.