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India: These girls are game to talk about sexual health

Apr 17, 2014

New experiences, new ideas and the confidence to say ‘no’ when the need arises – these young women are finally game to live life on their own terms, writes Elsa Mathews.

New Delhi: In January 2014, 18-year-old Priyanka, a resident of Badarpur on the outskirts of Delhi, travelled by train for the very first time. No, it was not to visit relatives with her family but to play a game of beach netball on Kerala’s Shankumugham beach in Thiruvananthapuram district with her team. Even more exciting than making her way to the pristine southern state was catching the first glimpse of the sea. “While I really had fun during my maiden train journey, seeing the sea was magical,” she recalls, with a happy smile.

Priyanka had this much cherished opportunity to set foot out of her home and neighbourhood thanks to Naz Foundation, a New Delhi NGO working on HIV/AIDS and sexual health. In fact, she is among the 3,000 girls who are part of Naz’s Goal programme that seeks to empower girls through sport. “Despite our best efforts to control HIV we realised that its incidence was high among women. This was because women and girls are not able to assert themselves in their private sphere, say ‘No’ to early marriages or unprotected sex. They were not able to raise their voice to continue their education. So we decided to use sport as a means of empowerment. It’s common to see boys playing in fields and maidans in India but not girls. Our motive was to change this,” says Kalyani Subramanyam of the Naz Foundation.

Naz India has been implementing the Goal Programme since 2006. Supported by Standard Chartered Bank, it runs in seven locations in Delhi and 20 locations across India. A partnership with the Australian Sports Outreach Program has helped build capacity to deliver high quality sports. Priyanka is among the 23 girls, who started out as netball players but have now been absorbed in the programme as community sports coaches.

But how can 14 girls and a ball – the standard set up for a netball game – lower the incidence of HIV/AIDS in the country? The idea behind teaching young girls in the 12-20 age group netball is that as they become proficient in a professional sport, they also learn about HIV/AIDS and get some relevant life skills education that is focused on building their confidence and communication skills.

Why zero in on netball? Explains Vivek Gaur, Sports Development Manager, Australian Sports Outreach Programme, “This game has minimum body contact and is played exclusively by women all over the world. Also it is less aggressive than basketball. When parents come to know that there are no boys involved they are more willing to send their daughters.” The programme operates through municipal schools and each centre holds one game of netball and one session on life skills.

Priyanka was introduced to netball in school in 2009. “The Naz Foundation had introduced this programme in our school and someone told me that they teach games. I immediately inquired whether it was free of charge. If I had to pay, then it would have been difficult as my family wouldn’t have agreed,” she says. Of course, her fears were unfounded and soon she was running around the school grounds freely enjoying the feeling of being able to learn a sport.

Today, five years on, as a community sports coach she encourages girls in her community to play. “When I started out, although I was a very talkative girl I really did not know how to express myself. Now I know what to say and where; how to put across my thoughts when I am angry, how to persuade and how to egg on other girls,” she elaborates. Priyanka is also a first year student of political science at Delhi University’s PGDAV College where she obtained admission through the sports quota. “It is because of netball that I am able to go to regular college,” she says.

Her participation in netball has even helped her to become a more responsible member at home, “My father now involves me in handling money. He thinks I will be more careful with it.” Yet, most importantly, this game has helped her to freely talk about her body. “Today, I speak openly about menstruation. It is natural and I don’t think I need to feel shy talking about it to my family anymore,” she reveals.

The girls on Priyanka’s team have also experienced transformation since they started playing netball. “Earlier we were lazy, now we are more active,” says Manisha Chowdhary, 14, who started playing in 2007. “We used to be scared, now we feel more confident about who we are,” chips in her friend, Preeti Sharma, 13. “It took us about a year to understand the game but our coach was very patient,” adds Manisha, who never misses her play sessions that are held twice a week. Once the game is through, she and her teammates make a beeline for the life skills’ class.

The Goal programme focuses on four key life skills: promotion of self-confidence, communication skills, health and hygiene, and financial literacy. Once the girls complete Goal, they are invited to become Goal peer leaders and community sports coaches, who are trained to deliver the programme themselves. Since its inception the Goal programme has reached out to 9,665 girls.

“When I started playing netball my parents were really worried. They didn’t approve of the fact that we had to wear shorts. They were also concerned about boys playing with us. Thankfully, they are okay with it,” says Pooja Singh, 17, of Jaitpur on the outskirts of southeast Delhi. Talking about the change that she has undergone from being a reticent girl to a self-assured one, she says, “I never spoke to anybody and thought the girls should always be quiet. Slowly, as I realised that this was a misplaced attitude, I started to assert myself a little more. My parents would find it strange when I would insist that I accompany them to the market when I needed something, instead of simply asking them to get it for me.” Roshni, 19, who used to participate in kabbadi and athletics before she joined the Goal programme, adds, “I used to depend on my father for everything, but not anymore. I can go out on my own and even visit the local Naz office easily when the need arises.”

Pooja, who is pursuing a correspondence course in political science from Delhi University, is proud of the fact that her parents don’t need to go the neighbour’s house when they have to fill out important papers. “Earlier if there was a form to fill, my mother would go to the neighbours. Now we do it on our own. My parents even take me to the bank.”

However, for Pooja, one of the biggest advantages of this programme has been the fact that she knows more about HIV/AIDS. “The Goal programme has informed me about HIV/AIDS. Also we have been told about our rights as girls and women,” she says. The programme has also allowed Pooja to pick up organisational and computer skills, “I have learnt to organise training sessions and also use the software for marking the attendance of participants.”

Pooja, a member of the team that went to Kerala for the beach netball competition which was held between the different Goal programme teams from across the country, says, “I really enjoyed playing in the sand. I had never seen the sea before. I loved it when the water touched my feet.”

New experiences, new ideas and the confidence to say ‘no’ when the need arises – these young women are finally game to live life on their own terms.

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