The power of sport is infinite. She wins. She plays. She hurts. She hits. She boxes. She takes the punches. She breaks records. These are Girls with goals. India could be at the cusp of change for its women, one that’s driven by sport. Before the Olympic Games few had met Dipa Karmakar, PV Sindhu, Vinesh Phogat, Deepika Kumari, Aditi Ashok, Heena Sidhu and many others. But Rio has changed all that. When was the last time an entire nation sat and watched and cheered our women in the ring? When was the last time we even noticed that a certain TV channel forgot to put the spotlight on Dipa Karmakar? We have been jumping off our seats with every smash that PV Sindhu did, with every 10 that Bombayla hit, with every round that Sakshi Malik overcame her rival. This tells us a story. That these moments aren’t just sporting milestones. They could be game changing moments.
Sport could be a force for India. Beti Bachao, Beti Padao, Beti Khilao. Not only could sport empower women, it could help them crack the glass ceiling. It has the power to broadcast women’s voices and tear down gender challenges, discrimination and misogyny.
SheThePeople has met so many amazing sport personalities but there’s one common challenge – that they are ‘fighting.’ Every single day. Battling at every stage – from access, infrastructure, misogyny in the community, pay gap and more. India’s first sumo wrestler Hetal Dave says, “fight as long as you can.” Sakshi Malik, who won a bronze in 58 kgs wrestling at Rio 2016 admits facing 12 years of misogyny and taunts for being a girl in a man’s sport. Dutee was left to face social stigma and was ostracised for having a physical condition where her body produced more testosterone than normal. As a result Chand was unceremoniously pulled out from the India continent going for the Commonwealth Games. Santhi Soundarajan has had to face public humiliation after failing what were known earlier as gender tests.
Sania Mirza in a video conversation shares how women are expected to prove themselves each day. “I do think it is a bit tougher. Every woman would agree with me when I say that life is just a little bit tougher for a woman whether its going for an interview, for work, playing tennis or getting on a bus. That’s just the reality of it. Unless we all accept that and try to make it better, it’s not going to happen.”
The discrimination comes in many forms. Societal. Emotional. Monetary. In February 2016, India’s women’s 4X400 relay team alleged that while men athletes have been accommodated in a four-star hotel, they were put up guest rooms at local institute 20kms away from the stadium.
Compare some of these gory stories to the pride and joy women in sport bring. India can’t believe that the medal drought has been broken by a woman. There are some solid reasons why sport can be a game changer for India.
Playing sports can help women develop motivational skills, team building skills, leadership qualities and bring a competitive spirit that’s essential for success on the playing field. One that can later even help transform attitude at the workplace or in life in general.
I agree with UN Women’s Lakshmi Puri when she says “women in sport defy the misperception that they are weak or incapable. Every time they clear a hurdle or kick a ball, demonstrating not only physical strength, but also leadership and strategic thinking, they take a step towards gender equality.”
According to the United Nations, when girls participate in sports they are more likely to attend school and participate in society. When women and girls can walk on the playing field, they are more likely to step into the classroom, the boardroom, and step out as leaders in society. Girls who play sports have higher levels of confidence and self-esteem than girls who don’t play sports. “Apart from the obvious that sport has a massive potential to enhance the earning ability and status in society for women, there is so much more to the whole thing. Success and victories can raise their confidence level and, more importantly, motivate others,” says Joy Chakravarty, journalist with Sport360. “But the greatest thing about sports for women is that achievements are quantifiable and cannot be argued. There is little room to discriminate. Unlike in many other spheres in life, a 59 in golf by Annika Sorenstam is as good as a 59 by David Duval and seven Wimbledon titles of Serena Williams is no better or worse than the seven titles won by Roger Federer.”
India needs to wake up and play. Sport can move the needle on gender equality faster than anything else.