At a time where most kids are struggling to juggle academics and sports, Monika Kumari is one of a kind. Coming from a small village of Hutup in Jharkhand, Monika currently studies in 12th grade. And, at the age of 17, she is already among the talented bunch of young football coaches present at Yuwa school, an NGO that works towards empowering young women.
Yuwa, winners of the Laureus Sports Award for Good Honour earlier this year, runs a football programme that looks after more than 450 girls across rural Jharkhand. Kumari, daughter of a local security guard, herself trains about thirty young girls every week.
Before coaching, she had no prior interest in sports. She wanted to pursue subjects like fashion designing and photography but it was her brother who persuaded her to take up football.
“Yuwa has a policy where if one boy is joining their football programme, so then he needs to get four girls along. So I joined because of my brother. He later stopped playing but I continued because I enjoyed football and was able to carry out my studies at the same time,” she told Scroll.in.
In 2017, Kumari was a member of a select group part of a world-class coaches training camp, conducted at the Real Sociedad academy in Spain, supported by BookASmile, a charity initiative of BookMyShow. As a player, the teenager has also represented Yuwa at Donosti and Gasteiz Cups in Spain as well as the Subroto Cup in Delhi.
“When I was 13, Yuwa was looking out for young coaches and I was very interested. I loved interacting with children so didn’t think twice. My parents supported me because I was ready to bear my expenses. They even wanted money at that time, so they agreed,” she said.
While Kumari received enough support from her family to play the sport, it wasn’t the same for others.
Back home, Monika had to battle many prejudices against women who are expected to stay home and get married as early during their childhood. She was even been forced to wear full pants over her football shorts before going home.
When she initially started out reaching out to families, requesting their girls to take up football, she was left with little to no hope. On many occasions, the youngster would end up receiving an earful from the family members.
“We wanted to assemble a team so we went to the families, but they were not ready. They initially opposed and even used to fight with us. Some girls were beaten for this. They used to say that our girls will play like this, wear these clothes and grow up like you. We don’t want to spoil them.
“These things were difficult to control. Kabhi thoda gaali galoch bhi hota tha aur woh hume bhagaa dete the [We would even get abuses and be sent away]. We got told off by a lot of families but had to be polite since we wanted their girls to play football,” Kumari revealed.
Grassroots football programmes for girls in India are a rarity but Yuwa’s project has not only provided these girls with a platform to express themselves but also combat poverty, child marriage, human trafficking among other issues deep ingrained in the society.
Although more girls have enrolled in Yuwa’s programme over the years since it was launched in 2009, there are still face days when they are harassed in some way or the other. These girls now travel to a few alternate grounds nearby by bus where they can be left completely alone.
“The boys would not let us play at the ground where we initially trained. They would spoil something or the other. At times, they would break mirrors at the ground and pass comments. So we had to leave and were forced to change places. A few girls also left football because of this,” she bemoaned.
Though Kumari is still undecided over pursuing football coaching as a long-term career option, for now, she is more than happy to serve a role model for many girls.
“They tell me that they want to grow up like me, so I feel good about that. What I love about coaching is that you get to share your knowledge with others.
“Maybe these girls can also think of a future [in the sport]. They’re getting the freedom and there is a different environment here away from the society. They can do whatever they want, so I am glad,” she said.