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Oct 18, 2016

Wrestling Social Norms Out

Savvy Soumya Misra

The athletes – sprinters, kabaddi team and wrestlers of Sikhrodi village. Komal, one of the wrestlers, is in white and blue school uniform

The athletes – sprinters, kabaddi team and wrestlers of Sikhrodi village. Komal, one of the wrestlers, is in white and blue school uniform

Man: “It’s better to teach girls. It is better to send them to school.” 

Me: “You think so?”

Man: “The whole village thinks so.”

Me: “Why?”

Man: “The boys are useless. The girls have made us proud.” 

Me: “How?”

Man: “Have you heard of Sakshi Malik?”

(Sakshi is the wrestler who won a bronze in Olympics 2016) 

Me: “Yes, I have”

Man: “We have a couple of Sakshis in our village. And they have done us proud at the state level.”

The whole conversation seemed too fantastic to be true. ‘Send girls to school’, ‘they have made us proud’ – these are not words one hears very often. Definitely not in a remote village in Uttar Pradesh’s Hamirpur district. So I had to ask the gentleman to repeat himself – this was the verbal equivalent of physically pinching oneself. 

UP numbers on literacy rate and sex ratio don’t look very good. UP with 70% literacy rate ranks 29th out of 33 states and Union Territories. Female literacy in the state too hovers close to the bottom at 59 per cent; the national female literacy rate is 65 per cent. The state has a poor sex ratio too – 908 as against India’s already dismal sex ratio of 933.  

Anyway. Turns out the gentleman who followed us to the school, where we were going to meet some students of a Girls Primary School, was a School Management Committee (SMC) member. His daughter too studied in the school and she was in the Kabaddi team. Their team, representing the district, had reached the finals of the regional sports meet; they lost to Banda district in the finals. “They had older and senior girls. That wasn’t right. Otherwise we would have defeated them,” says Preeti. The boys had lost in the qualifying rounds. 

So the Kabaddi team was here — Preeti, Anita, Ragini, Hitanshi, Chitra and Sampat — with their certificates and mementoes carefully wrapped in plastic packets. Some of them had participated in races and won them as well. 

We were still waiting for Sadhna and Komal. They were the wrestlers. They were the Sakshi Maliks the gentleman was talking about.

The girls, a confident lot, were breaking one norm at a time in this village. They had made their parents realise that they were better than the boys. They made the village realise that sports was something that girls could participate in and excel. They made them realise that they could be wrestlers! 

Komal and Sadhna had joined a secondary school in the neighbouring village just this year, we were told. They finally arrived. They barely looked like wrestlers. But then I don’t know what wrestlers should look like. Komal is a little stocky – if that is any give away for a wrestler. The two became wrestlers by chance. Rather on a whim. 

They were there at the district games last year, both of them also a part of the kabaddi team. Sadhna was participating in the races as well. So when the wrestling competitions began, the two watched it carefully, approached their teacher and told him they want to participate. And then they did. For the girls to participate in the combat sport without any prior training was a huge step. They participated and won. They won at the regional level as well. Komal was first, Sadhna second. At the state level, Komal was second. She lost because she wasn’t aware of all the manoeuvres and techniques. And this was before Sakshi Malik became the first Indian woman to win a bronze for wrestling. 

“This year I am better prepared. I am practicing and have learnt a few good moves,” says Komal with a smile. She trains with Sadhna. She and her elder brother take care of the house; her mother keeps unwell and her father had left them a long time ago. She prepares lunch before she goes to school. After school and her practice, she does the remaining chores. Both the siblings have continued their studies. Sports, perhaps, played an important role.  

We were in Sikhrodi, a village in the middle of a scrub forest far removed from any other village in the gram panchayat. The approach to the village is an unmetalled road that is all mud, stone and dust. Sikhrodi is dominated by the Kewat (boatmen) community; an OBC community who now pursue farming (apart from being boatmen). Children here, we are told, were usually pulled out of school to support the parents in farming or household chores. School wasn’t a priority. 

When Oxfam India partner Samarth Foundation started work in this village school a few years ago, the first challenge was to get students to school. Apart from ensuring that classes were held regularly, sports was revived. This became a huge draw both for the girls and boys (The boys’ primary school was far from the village so they attended the village school along with the girls). 

Then there was the task of bringing the parents on board. The first time the girls had to go for a sports meet to the block headquarters, at Kurara, their parents refused. “We had to convince them to come with us. We assured them of their security. Some of the parents came with us. That was important. When they saw their daughters perform so well, they were filled with pride. The next time there was a sports meet, they were more than happy to let the girls go,” says Durgesh of Samarth Foundation. As one of the partners of Oxfam India, Samarth Foundation has been helping streamline studies and extracurricular activities at the village school.     

Komal and Sadhna and the rest of the girls are fairly well known in the state school sports circuit. They want to continue with their sports. Komal and Sadhna come back to their alma mater to train. The girls know their Olympians well and want to become like Dipa Karmakar, Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu. All they need is a little encouragement and the right training. The students look up to Durgesh from Samarth Foundation and their teacher for the training, for the encouragement they look at their parents, villagers and their friends.   

When they first came back with a prize, the Pradhan (village headman) was indifferent to their achievements. “Sports, so what?” he had asked. He realised its significance when the district magistrate came to the school and felicitated the girls in front of the village. “This meant a lot and helped change things around here,” says Durgesh. 

This is what perhaps made that ‘fantastic’ conversation possible. And going by what the gentleman had to say, the girls seem to be in for the long run.  

 

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