Short of getting married at nine in 2012 in Ormanjhi, a hamlet in Jharkhand, and wearing shorts and kicking a ball around on a football ground, Seema Kumari's Harvard story is nothing short of a Bollywood biopic.
The 17-year-old daughter of illiterate farmers, who grazed cattle, brought water from a hand pump, helped her family in the fields and sold rice beer, has received a full scholarship to Harvard. Once she finishes college, she plans to start a gender equality project back home. The game changer? "Football and education," Seema replies.
She graduated from Class XII in April 2021 and is the first in her family to be attending university. "When I started playing football for Yuwa in 2012, I met girls from different villages and castes. I also met foreign visitors whom I liked to interact with. When the villagers protested against girls wearing shorts or playing football I began to question them," she says.
Yuwa is a Jharkhand-based, internationally acclaimed NGO working in the Ormanjhi area for the past 11 years. Football gave Seema confidence. She was growing up in the area where many children, especially girls, drop out of school, get married early, face gender-related violence, and fall prey to human trafficking.
"Yuwa's three interconnected programmes sports teams, workshops, and an all-girls school - represent a single, holistic, intensive strategy to give girls the confidence, leadership skills, education, and tools they need to break out of poverty," says Rose Thomson Gastler, Principal and Co-Founder, Yuwa School, where Seema studied.
Seema laments, "Five to 10 girls are married off every year in my village. When a girl attains puberty, parents get her married. This has been the culture here for generations. Girls don’t get the opportunity to finish high school. Instead they have to take up the responsibility of working at their in-laws and having a baby in a year or two."
Seema is happy that she dodged the marriage bullet. Gastler says the school enjoys a low student-teacher ratio (9:1) and hires innovative, diverse teachers who encourage and facilitate students to dream big and apply for global opportunities such as Harvard. "Seema applied like everyone else, but her talent got her the scholarship," she adds.
Although Seema's football talent did not have anything to do with her Harvard opportunity, Gastler believes the game has taught her discipline and dedication, which helped her excel in anything she takes up.
Incidentally, Seema had spent a year in the US for an academic exchange programme in 2019-20 at a government school in Washington state and finished with straight As, which may have been instrumental in her getting the scholarship.
Not just Seema, graduates from the school are now attending top universities throughout India, Spain, and Bangladesh, Gastler adds. Although Seema is still uncertain of the subject she will be majoring in at Harvard, her vision for the future is clear.
She asserts, "I plan to start an organisation for the women in my village, which would train them in vocational skills and be financially independent. I'll educate women about their rights."