It was a cold night in Ranchi. And irrespective of the weather, most men from the 15 villages in the Ormanjhi block of Ranchi indulge in heavy drinking. Priyanka (name changed) had a particularly tiring day. She was trying to sleep when she heard noises from her parents’ room. It was late at night and she knew that’s when her drunk father usually came back. She thought it must be the usual fights, with her mother complaining about his drinking habits. She decided to check if her mother was alright.
What she saw made her tremble in fear. Her father was trying to bash her mother’s face with a brick and kill her. The young girl, at her wit’s end, jumped in to save her mother. Enraged, her father turned his attention towards his daughter. Picking up a bamboo stick, he started thrashing her. Fortunately, mother and daughter came out alive.
Priyanka had heard of Yuwa School. Her friends played football there. They looked happy, something she had not been for a long time. She rushed there with gashes across her face and body.
Rural Jharkhand sees six out of 10 girls drop out of school and become child brides. The state also has the lowest ratio of teachers for each government school in the country as well as ranking lowest in female literacy. The state is among the worst in human trafficking, domestic abuse, sanitation and throws up several challenges to the empowerment of women.
It’s one of the reasons Franz Gastler, 35, from Minnesota, US, started Yuwa. A Boston University graduate, Gastler came to India in 2007 as a business consultant with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). By the summer of 2008, looking for new challenges, Gastler joined an NGO, Krishi Gram Vikas Kendra, in Jharkhand, which runs education programmes.
“I moved into a mud hut in a rural village, and I was completely fascinated by that life,” Gastler says “One of the first things that struck me was that the boys all go out to play, while the girls work.”
Initially, he thought giving kids the opportunity to study in a reputed English medium school was the way forward. Starting a small scholarship fund along with school friends Stephen Peterson, Greg Deming, Erik Odland, in 2009, Gastler went about it until he learnt that the kids he was sponsoring were not attending classes regularly.
“When the fathers got to know, they started taking away the money to buy alcohol. Alcoholism is a huge problem here. The schools also mistreated the girls and corporal punishment was a regular feature. Seeing that the money was going to waste, I stopped it. That failure made me realise something. In India, nothing comes easy.”
While working at the NGO, one of Gastler’s students told him she wanted to play football. That simple request set Yuwa in motion. The programme, which started in 2009, was named Yuwa, derived from the Hindi word Yuva for “youth.”
Gastler, with his three friends, pooled in enough money to launch the programme. Convincing parents to let daughters play was the first hurdle. But once that was crossed, success came almost immediately. In less than a year, 13 of Yuwa’s girls made it to Jharkhand’s age-group state teams, and seven made it to the under-13 state team, whose ranking shot to fourth from 20th.
When Yuwa was founded, it was a scholarship fund designed to give diligent students in low-quality local government schools chance to attend a better, local private school. Girls who were just on the scholarship would come to Yuwa once a month to collect school fees. By the end of the first year, they had missed 40-50 days of school.
In 2015, Rose Thompson, education director, co-founded Yuwa School with Gastler. According to them, most schools in the area were overcrowded and employed abusive teachers. It was that lack of a learning environment that inspired Gastler and Thomson to start Yuwa School. “The quality of education leaves them unprepared for a good job,” Rose says. “Nutrition levels are poor.
If these girls grew up where I did, they would be applying to Stanford, Harvard or Yale. Here they fight for the absolute basics.” The girls are taught to read and write, and they learn about female health and self-esteem. They’re also taught skills to become financially independent.
With football in the picture, girls playing in the team came to Yuwa school every day, and through the power of their team network, they encouraged one another to go to school to the point where they rarely missed a day. To enroll in Yuwa school, a girl had to join one of the soccer teams.
Every system in Yuwa is geared towards empowering girls. Team captains maintain attendance records for the rest and also manage a small fund for uniform, shoes, and balls. Coaches are drawn from former trainees.
Like Kalawati Kumari, 17, a high-school student who started training with Yuwa in 2009 and was selected for Jharkhand’s U-19 and U-17 teams. In 2011, she completed coaches’ training programmes from the Tata Football Academy, Jamshedpur, and Bhaichung Bhutia Football Schools.
Off the ground, the girls have odds stacked against them. Most families don’t expect them to finish school. Fifteen is the common age for marriage, and they are expected to be bound by the strict boundaries of housework and farm work.
“Abuse and apathy. Those are the biggest challenges for the girls here,” Gastler says.
“They are ignored and not allowed to dream. Nothing that is intended for them comes to them. They are jeered and taunted for wearing shorts, or playing with boys.”
Once in a while, the chance to go abroad comes up. Hailing from tribal villages, these girls never thought about leaving Ranchi. But now they can dream of a brighter future. The selection process is rigorous and, some might say, unconventional. According to Rose, “...the girls were chosen after a careful process that took into consideration their commitment to improving themselves through Yuwa; their school and practice attendance; football skill; and most importantly, character.
Every girl was ranked by her teammates based on (these) values: positivity, honesty...selflessness and (if she) inspired unity. They were chosen as much by each other as they were by their coaches.”
It is not easy convincing people at home. More often than not, relatives and others offer advice to the contrary.
“My parents were ready to let me go. But relatives started brainwashing them and telling them that the gora (foreigner) will sell me off to the highest bidder abroad,” Rima, one of the girls, said.
When girls selected for the Donesti Cup in Spain went to the local panchayat office to request for birth certificates (many were born at home) in order to make passports, they were told it could only happen if they paid hefty money. Then they were told to sweep the panchayat office if they couldn’t afford the sum. When a couple of girls, after being humiliated in this fashion, reminded the officer that passport deadlines were approaching, they were slapped.
“The difference in how they are treated in Jharkhand and how they were treated in Spain is so vast that you can’t begin to compare,” Gastler says. Spain was a riot. The Yuwa girls, with their combative skills on the field, and effortless charm off it, were treated like royalty. They became the darlings of the local media, went for a tour of Real Madrid’s training ground, met Xabi Prieto of Real Sociedad.
Everyone from hostel staff to those working in the canteen started attending their matches.
“We loved it so much,” Sunita Kumari says. “It was not difficult to make friends even though we did not speak their language. We had people translating for us. We would play in the morning, then go swim and play in the sea. Then train or play in the evening again, and then go to parties.”
The only thing that the girls hated was food. “Continental dishes made no sense to us. We learnt Spanish for ‘not any more’ and kept repeating it when we were offered food!”
For Sunita, whose parents do nothing, the trip was something unimaginable. She has already spoken at Women Deliver, the largest platform for women speakers in Copenhagen. That too, days after her mother died. She has two elder sisters, both married off at an early age. Through coaching at Yuwa, she takes care of her younger sisters, both of whom want to emulate their role model Sunita!
When Yuwa School began, they had five full-time teachers for 45 students in grades 1 through 8. This year, enrolment has increased to 80, with seven full-time teachers. Thirty-two of the 35 Yuwa coaches are girls actively involved in decision-making for the football programme.
Senior girl players are taking on more leadership roles. Five have started leading life-skills workshops, seven are teaching after-school English and math classes and more than 25 have spoken publicly. Every week, girls express themselves in workshops and bring up topics that are normally taboo — such as child marriage, alcoholism and domestic abuse.
Yuwa’s child development officer has been visiting families two to three times a week to discuss future plans. Girls have reported that parents become more supportive after these meetings. Yuwa also coordinates biannual workshops with Jharkhand policewomen about legal rights.
Society tells girls to fit in. Yuwa coaches girls to stand out.
Centre of excellence with better facilities, nutrition and education. Yuwa has bought 3 acres in Kunti (half-an-hour from Ranchi). Foundation stone will be laid on Children’s Day. There will be a hostel for 150. The existing school has till Class X. The new one will have XI & XII. On the wish list is a turf for small tournaments. There are plans to increase the number of students to 300. The hostel will accommodate around 200. Rest will be day scholars.
Goals for Girls, a US-based non-profit organisation, is hosting a football tournament in Salt Lake City funded by the US state department for high-school girls. Scheduled for June next year, the tour will last a fortnight and feature four players and a coach.
Ultimate Frisbee competition will be held in Surat from November 17. Yuwa will send its first-ever co-ed team.
Meet the faculty
Franz Gastler: Grew up in Edina, Minnesota. In India since 2007. Holds BA and MA in International Political Economy from University Professors Program at Boston University and holds certificates on Program on Negotiation from Harvard Law School. Before co-founding Yuwa, jobs done included ski & snowboard instructing, interning at the Ministry of Finance in Colombia.
Rose Thomson Gastler: From Missouri, joined Yuwa in 2012 while studying the use of sports to empower disadvantaged girls, with support from Walker Fellowship from Hendrix College. After months with Yuwa’s female coaches in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum moved to Ranchi. Coordinated education programme for 2 years before founding Yuwa School in 2015. Principal and part-time Ultimate Frisbee coach. Married Franz in April.
Coaches (seniors as well as teenage girls) arrive at the campus at 4.30am every day to take the bus to coach 18 teams on 8 grounds. Practice timings 5.30-7am. Bus drops girls home before returning to campus.
Yuwa school is from 8.30am-3pm. Afternoon sessions are from 4-5.15pm. Football is not the only sport. It’s played on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Ultimate Frisbee ( a popular sport in the US) is played on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Sundays are match-days and games are played from 6.30-8.30am.
In Yuwa school, fees are D220 per month for each girl till Class 8. Class 9 onwards, the fee is D550. Coaches over 18 receive a salary. Coaches under 18 receive scholarships for education. They start as volunteer coaches, and after demonstrating the ability to manage a team and coaching skills, they earn between D80 (Level 1 coaches) and D160 (Level 2) per practice session.
Confederation of Indian Industry, BookASmile, Mercedes Benz India, Tata Sky, Nike. Other corporates and individual donors.