“What do you like the most about football?”

“Friends,” replies Seema Kumari. “Because of football, I’ve friends from many places in and out of India. I am still in touch with a girl who I met at the Real Sociedad academy in San Sebastian, Spain.”

This answer from Seema, 17, evokes a sense of sweet surprise for two reasons. One: because friendship is the best thing she likes about an activity that is often related to rivalry and battle. Two: because, well, it is Seema who’s saying it.

For, she is from a remote village in Jharkhand, a State that has the third lowest literacy rate in the country (according to the 2011 census) and where child marriages are prevalent. Girls and women rarely exit their homes in her village – Ormanjhi. San Sebastian and Real Sociedad are entities they would be unaware of. So, for one of their peers to have a friend from another continent is a big deal.

According to a 2017 report More than Brides Alliance: A Baseline 49% of the girls (aged between 15 to 19) it surveyed in Jharkhand were already married.

But four of Seema’s schoolmates Hima, Nita, Radha and Konika belonging to the same age-group, shook hands, joked and played football with Arsene Wenger and Boris Becker when they were in Monaco recently to receive the Laureus Sport for Good award on behalf of their school, Yuwa.

What is Yuwa?

Franz Gastler, a graduate of Boston University and Harvard Law School, was working for an NGO in Jharkhand, 12 years ago. Gastler’s work included teaching locals English a few days a week. In between English lessons, he used to have arbitrary football sessions. It struck him, after a while, that he was always playing with the boys and men of the village.

That’s when he found out that most girls in the state are married/trafficked/illiterate/simply confined to their homes. Gastler asked the girls he’d met what they wanted to do for fun. Football was the reply, perhaps because they saw him play it with the village boys and men. So, he created a little community for girls to learn and play the sport. Like that, the Yuwa foundation was born in 2009.

But he knew football won’t suffice to make better the girls’ plight. So, in 2015, along with his wife, Rose, he started Yuwa School (in Ormanjhi), which according to its website, gives girls the tools they need to become empowered citizens, discover their own identity, and prepare for admission to universities in India and abroad. Laureus has been working with the school for the last three years and funds a portion of the running costs through its partner Mercedes Benz.

Football, however, is still synonymous with the school. For many girls, including Seema, it’s a source of income. “I train around 30-40 children, everyday, and I get paid for it,” she says. This money, she uses to pay her educational fee at Yuwa. Many of her friends do the same.

The school helps the girls acquire footballing skills – via in-house coaching and by taking them to world-class academies like Real Sociedad – with which they can earn money through coaching (and probably forge intercontinental friendships).

The income, Seema says, makes her financially independent. “When I wanted to join Yuwa, my parents let me on one condition: that I have to rear cattle in the evening. Most girls of my age have to do that in my village. But because I earn through football coaching I needn’t do that anymore.”

Overcoming obstacles

Seema, and many of her schoolmates, have visited other countries. “I did not know how the world was but after travelling, I know different cultures, foods, people and things,” she says.

One of her younger schoolmates, Sunita, 15, says, “It’s so different there [in San Sebastian]. People follow the rules, unlike here. Everything is so neat and clean. I want to be in a place like that.”

Neither Seema nor Sunita are sure of their careers. They weren’t before joining Yuwa, too. But the difference, as Sunita points out, “Before Yuwa, I did not think about what I want to do in life… I didn’t know. Now, I know I can be a teacher for an international school or a coach or something else...”

Pre-Yuwa, there was no career; now, they are spoilt for choice.

Seema, meanwhile, is interested in animation. She’s selected to participate in a career-programme in the University of Cambridge. She has also participated in a leadership programme in Washington University last year.

Taking the girls out of Jharkhand itself was an ordeal, though, especially in the first few years of the school’s inception, according to Shyam Prasad, who oversees the school and its football programme.

“The first time was extremely difficult,” he says. “The state is notorious for human trafficking. And, we fall right under the trafficking belt. So, the townsfolk thought we would take the girls out of the country and sell them. But when the first set of girls returned, they started trusting us.”

But even now, the school’s male staff members do not call the girls, or visit them, at their homes, because of the danger of domestic abuse. “A male talking to them over the phone might lead to domestic abuse. If any of the family members are drunk, they won’t be thinking rationally. Alcohol abuse is extremely common here. So, we have a strict child protection policy. We try to be vigilant at all times,” says Prasad.

Despite all these difficulties, Yuwa is fundraising to build a residential campus that can house 150 students and enroll 600, soon. And, the recent success at the Laureus Sports Awards is a much-needed fillip to their efforts.