Changing Culture in Kolkata
May 15, 2015. Chief Exec Brian tells of the dramatic transformation occurring in Kolkata, India.
They want to play. That much is clear. There were 49 different women who came out to our trainings this past week and all wanted to play. Even the 22 of whom had never kicked a football until this week. The culture and traditions of this community did not make it easy for girls and women to play football. It just wasn’t something that they historically participated in – and change is not easy. Threats and acts of physical violence on women for playing sport are extremely rare, but still occur from time to time as we heard second-hand accounts during our time here.
But the culture is changing and the overwhelming majority of this community has chosen to support this change, with the assistance of the partnership between Chevrolet FC, the Belalious School, Slum Soccer, and Coaches Across Continents. A new field-turf facility was built on the grounds of the Belalious School in an impoverished area of Kolkata called Tikiapara. The girls (and boys) now have a safe space, both physically and emotionally to participate in sport. And more importantly the community has embraced this facility as their own.
Each afternoon two hours has been designated exclusively for the girls and women of this community to come and play and learn. They slip off their shoes and headscarves and join in the CAC training to learn from the game of football. Only a few are comfortable donning soccer jerseys or shorts, and the rest play in their colorful saris. A handful are already coaches, while others are hoping to become community leaders who can begin using the field as a place to teach young girls social messages through soccer, an opportunity many of them were never afforded.
What does it mean to change cultures and traditions, and why is this important? Despite the lip service globally to equal human rights, many girls and women are not permitted to play sports. Here in India, less than 2% of soccer players are female, and that number may be generous. But beliefs can change and should change if we truly want to embrace equal rights. Sport, especially sport for social impact, is something that promotes healthy lifestyles for women, decreases infant mortality, fosters female empowerment and gender equity, and encourages further education which in turn increases average annual income. And most importantly, sport is fun. And the women want to play. That much is clear.
The most satisfying aspect of this week, as a western man who is coming to this community as an outsider with my own ingrained beliefs, was watching a group of older men observe training each day. They sat peacefully and supportively guarded the entryway, shooing away small boys or leering adolescents so that the women could train in peace. They were the guardians of this new safe space. In their own gruff way, these men are ensuring that it is ok for cultures to change and to allow their daughters, sisters, and wives to enjoy the freedom of sport and the power of social education through football. And the girls and women want to play. That much is clear.