Away from the skyscrapers and concrete bulwarks that is Gurgaon (officially Gurugram), lies the Haryana district of Mewat.

At a distance of 45 kilometres from the cyber hub located in the National Capital Region, Mewat, now administratively known as Nuh, is one of Haryana’s youngest districts carved out of the Faridabad and Gurgaon districts in 2005.

For sometime now, Haryana has emerged as one of the top hubs of women’s football, possibly next to only Manipur and Odisha. Alakhpura FC, who have charted their own course to the Indian Women’s League, come entirely from one town in the state.

The state’s penchant for rewarding competence in sports with jobs in the public sector also produces a high number of sports persons. Mewat however, is more challenging ground.

Everyone’s a winner

In the Mewat Model Government School grounds on a relatively pleasant Tuesday afternoon, two teams in yellow and red square off for an hour on the pitch. On the sides, the girls are cheered on by the boys, who had once told them that this was their ground.

This was a year ago. Since then, the young women have improved considerably on the field and have garnered the respect of their peers. Eventually, the team from Punhana wins by a solitary goal as the girls in yellow rush to congratulate the goalscorer.

On this day however, everyone’s a winner. The teams from the Firozpur Jhirka and Nuh tehsils are second and third. The Taoru and Nagina sides join in the festivities as well. The five teams exchange embraces as Mewat’s first-ever Under-12 girls football tournament concludes.

Saiba Choudhary, a coach and a D-licensee, speaks about the girls, “When we first came here in December 2016, they were shy. They had difficulties running straight. Gradually, they’ve picked up elementary stuff such as trapping the ball and passing it. Their improvement in a year has been remarkable.”

Mewat, a stiff challenge

Mewat, home to the Meo Muslims, is one of Haryana’s most marginalised districts. Sara Abdullah Pilot, a co-founder for the Centre for Equity and Inclusion (CEQUIN), speaks about Mewat’s challenges.

“We specifically picked Mewat because it was an area which was proving hard to break through to. NGO’s have been going there for years and have failed to make headway in a conservative, traditional and insular space,” she says.

One in every third girl child in the district is literate (36.6%), much lower than the state’s average (65.4%) and the dropout rates are alarmingly high. With a quarter of its population under the age of six, that is anything but good news.

Pilot and co-founder Lora Prabhu had decided in 2010 that sports and in particular, football, as an instrument of change, could be used a means of intervention for the girl child in economically backward areas. ‘Kickstart Equality’, launched with 25 girls in the Jamia Nagar region of Delhi has today expanded to 2,600 with Mewat witnessing it’s first-ever under-age tournament for women.

Somi, a member of the coaching team and herself a product of the Jamia project, says that the aim is to give back through football, “Now we’re much more confident. We’ve all got our degrees and AIFF D licenses. Some of us coach at places such as Hindustan FC and Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools. Now we go to the girls houses, their families, try and convince them to send their girls.”

A ball and a field is all that matters

Almost 90% percent of Mewat lives in it’s rural base, where a chronic shortage of potable water and public transport has added immensely to the difficulties of ordinary women. Government schools are made inaccessible by a lack of transportation options and adequate sanitation facilities.

The girls at the tournament are all from government schools, but targeting out-of-school girls and integrating them also remains a priority, says Pilot. For Mewat, it’s low social indices often mean that one or two in a family of five or six is educated with preference being given to the male child.

In a year when the under-17 men have played their first-ever World Cup at home, the under-15 girls, coached by Maymol Rocky, also the coach of the senior women’s national team, finished runners-up at the SAFF Under-15 championship.

The entire budget of the women’s game stands at a fifth of the expenditure on the Under-17 team’s exposure tours alone and remains severely underfunded and deprived of more women coaches.

For the girls of Mewat however, a ball and a field is a release from their surroundings, and now an integral part of their being. From dawn till the break of school, the area between the two goalposts is all that matters.