3. ENGAGE. COLLABORATE. CHANGE. : Leveraging sports as a means to ensure gender sensitivity in children and childhood holistic development: Akshai Abraham, Founder-Director, Project KHEL

Innumerable debates have occurred on gender equity world over and more so in India, most of them including women’s positing in the society, general level of education and exposure, health status, participation in sports, economic standing and the like. While on one hand, there is an increased literacy and participation in workforce by women in India, they still struggle to counter the patriarchal mindset which is the root cause for issues like early school dropouts, lack of financial independence, lower self-esteem, poor health status etc. According to the Indian Constitution, women not only have equal rights as those of men, but also enjoy certain provisions to safeguard their interests. However, their current state is far from utopian.

  Status of women and girls in under privileged sections of the Indian society is even more worrisome

A great deal of research has gone into establishing the positive impacts that sports have on the physical health, mental well-being and developing a strong character in both male and female children, in the long run. Girls in our society however are judged by peers, comparing them to unrealistic notions of body size and weight, which are in turn reinforced by the media. This leads to low level of self-esteem, social withdrawal, risky sexual behavior, depression in later stages of their lives and ultimately not living their lives to their full potential. As a social system, it’s a major failure, if a considerable proportion of almost half of the population is not content and has freedom of choice, consequently not playing its part in the society- culturally and economically.
Plan Canada conducted a study revealing a strong link between how girls are valued and sports participation, educational opportunities, and their ability to make positive decisions for their futures — avoiding early pregnancy, for example. On and off the field, sports can play a key role in cultivating leadership skills, decision-making power, resiliency, and the confidence needed to succeed, lead, and deliver for their communities and countries. Women in sports also effectively shatters gender stereotypes associated with this supposedly ‘masculine’ activity. It encourages girls to stake a collective claim for their right to play outdoor sports along with boys.
Project KHEL, a non-profit initiative, started in Lucknow, India- is reimagining education, by leveraging the ‘power of play’ and principles of ‘safe spaces’ and ‘gender sensitivity’ for the holistic development of children, to create secure adults for a better tomorrow. With its sports based interventions- ‘Made in Maidaan’ and ‘Ultimate Frisbee’, playing sports like Football, Frisbee, Rumal Kabaddi (A modified version of the sport designed to be played in mixed gender groups, with minimal contact involved), Khokho, Pithu and using theater, action songs, storytelling, video appreciation and such activities, it not only delivers 21st century life Skills to underprivileged children, but also transforms them into gender sensitive citizens who prompt change in their communities, and to widen the scope of their opportunities in the future.

Football training at one of the school camps by Project KHEL

Akshai Abraham founded Project KHEL in 2012. An Acumen Fellow and MBA from the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), Bhopal, Akshai has spent 10+ years working in the social sector. He has been involved with studies commissioned by international agencies such as the World Bank, USAID, UNICEF and has also worked on education-related development programmes with Aide-et-Action, an international NGO. For Akshai, who has been recognized at Indian Education Awards, the missing link in the education system was the reality that characters do get made in the maidaan (made on the field). In a way, Akshai was always destined for it — to create an organization that changes lives through the language of play. Once a shy kid, who would come alive on the playground of his boarding school, Akshai was determined to pass on the advantages of having received a sports-driven education, to children in India. Akshai has the Karamveer Chakra award in 2012- a National Medallion for Social Justice and Citizen Action, “Advanced Level Guidestar India Gold” in January 2020- fifth year in a row, Piyush Vaghela Award and other prestigious awards in his kitty. We at niiti consulting are glad to be in conversation with him, to have more insights from his incredible work all these years.

Akshai Abraham, Founder-Director, Project KHEL

Discussing the challenges in ensuring gender equity in India, Akshai believes that it is centuries of conditioning that is required to be overcome and, more recently, a feeling of distrust verging on hatred and violence towards anyone perceived as “other”. Children as young as 7 and 8-year-olds pass off the most sexist of remarks with the least bit of provocation. The children they interact with, come to them from regular families where gender-based segregation is a normal thing and right after their intervention, kids go back to the same society, which makes their struggle difficult. In recent years, the violence in language and being unapologetic about the same has been disturbingly visible. Over the years they have seen girls consistently remaining more sincere towards the programme, in contrast with the decreasing number of boys who would want to be open to a changing gender power dynamic.
In the past decade however, the solutions that Project KHEL has been working on, include implementing and advocating changes in our societal conduct. He believes that working in the space of gender equitability requires consistent efforts and not just an exclusive series of modules and lectures. He explains- ‘One of our biggest tools for change has been gaining full awareness of our gendered language. We consciously make every effort to use inclusive language and to avoid saying statements that re-emphasize existing stereotypes. For example, in most cases in our experience, for sports-based activities, girls are slightly more scared and end up being less participative. Then, instead of saying statements like “ladkiyan catches drop kar rahi hain” we say “yahan bahut catches drop kar rahe hain”. That way, we are able to suggest improvements or strategies for it without re-emphasizing that girls drop catches. There is a general defensive strategy in sports called “man to man” which we call “person to person” so we no longer say “apna man pakdo” rather we say “apna person pakdo”. Small things like these add up to make a big change.’ Akshai enumerates a few other examples of subtle behavioural modifications that every person can imbibe in their daily lives:
• Stop saying “tum meri beti nahi, mera beta ho”. This automatically establishes that ‘beta’ is the right person to be and not ‘beti’.
• Check ourselves on what makes us laugh. Most Indians love sharing jokes on married and unmarried couples, a lot of which are in bad taste. When we laugh at or forward sexist jokes we are enabling the rape culture.
• We should be aware of the songs we are listening to, no matter how peppy their tunes are. Humming sexist songs also enables rape culture.
• Create better boundaries for yourselves in how much one can interfere, influence and make suggestions to other humans, including our children and teach the same to our children.

Akshai with a group of children during a football practice breaktime

Instead of lecturing children on girls and boys being equal, they introduced a concept called Khichdi. Here, they say something like “girls are daal and boys are chawal and we can only proceed if khichdi is served”. By saying “girls and boys stand together”, we often bring children to a conflict situation, where, in most cases, they are told to stand or sit or play separately and we are asking them to do otherwise, but when explained through khichdi, it serves their purpose of getting girls and boys to play together, without verbally creating a conflict and helping them focus on the implementation part. They never say girls and boys are equals, instead, the concept of pluralism is being promoted, which celebrates the differences in people and yet treats each one worthy of being respected.
Elaborating upon the new trends in the next 10 years that hold promise, Akshai states that the sport of Ultimate Frisbee, gaining ground in India is extremely promising. It is commendable that the central board for this sport in India is pushing majorly for the mixed-gender format, keeping in mind the state of gender discrimination in India. Although currently it seems like this format too is working on tokenism on getting female participation, but with more club teams and female participation in the sport, we should be able to see this sport realize its true potential of giving an equal playing ground to girls and boys.

A group of young girls and boys, playing Ultimate Frisbee at Project KHEL

Akshai also thanks social media that more sports apart from men’s Cricket is getting attention. Although the language in a lot of these posts is “You have cheered for Virat Kohli’s xyz but did you know Smriti Mandana did abc”. He is however hopeful that with alternate media portals we are moving towards a time when all kind of sports can have their own audience and no one needs to be shamed for knowing something about men’s cricket and not about something else.
Closing with a message for the youngsters, Akshai posits that one needs to become what one really wants to be and not fit into any definitions written by anyone else. Sometimes a person’s reality might be tougher than others around and one might need to do something which they didn’t have in mind, it is absolutely fine. He suggests that ‘Survive through that situation without giving up on that dream that makes you feel alive each day. Just remember that your situation is never bigger than you and in Dr. Seuss’s words that- Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.’

Author- Vaishali Garg

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