Yuwa – A Story of Football as a Vehicle of Social Change

Exceeding Expectations Always’ – stands the new tourism slogan of an Indian state carved out of the southern part of Bihar. Prof. Sumit Sarkar explores how Yuwa, an NGO based in Rukka village of Jharkhand, is helping the local girl child to fight gender discrimination and change their lives for the better through the beautiful game


 Gasteiz Cup 2013

Laxmi, Purnima, Shivani, Sunita, Sushama, Urmila, Rinki and 11 other girls hailing from villages like Rukka, Hutup and Hesatu of Jharkhand will never forget the night of July 13, 2013. Never ever in their twelve, thirteen or fourteen years of lives were they so proud of themselves. It was their night and they achieved it. They achieved it for themselves, even if no one cared. Their team, Yuwa India, defeated local outfit Gasteiz CF 2-0 to claim third place in the girls’ U-14 category of the Gasteiz Cup 2013 held at Victoria-Gasteiz, Spain. In a tournament wherein 10 teams divided into two groups competed against each other, Yuwa India reached the semi-finals after winning two, losing one and drawing one match in the group stage competing against much stronger and healthier opponents. That is no small feat for these girls coming from extremely poor families, who don’t even get enough to eat. In an interview Urmila Kumari, star midfielder of the team said that they were slowed down by the synthetic turf as “the plastic grass clings to your shoes.” Indeed they never played on synthetic surfaces, and some of them never played wearing boots before they went to Spain to participate in two back-to-back tournaments – the Donosti Cup and the Gasteiz Cup. They never played outside the gravel fields of their villages, where they trained with their coach Sandeep Chhetry. As a matter of fact, even five years ago no girl played football in these villages of Ormanjhi block where, like most parts of India, girls need to survive gender discrimination for their sheer existence.

 The Donosti Cup Project

Before competing in the Gasteiz Cup, the Yuwa India team participated in the Donosti Cup, which was held between July 1 and 6, at San Sebastian, the home of Real Sociedad. Donosti Cup is the largest age-group tournament of Spain, where close to 400 teams from all over the world participates. The Yuwa India girls got the name Supergoats for playing barefoot in the two pre-tournament friendlies against Spanish teams, after landing in Madrid on June 27. No, they were not trying to uphold the great Indian tradition of playing barefoot. The team had just 14 pairs of boots and they could not afford to risk damaging their limited gear before the tournament.

There were 36 teams in the U-14 girls’ category, and the Supergoats were pooled in Group D with Añorga KKE B (Spain), Amara Berri KE (Spain) and Wisconsin International (USA).The matches were of 50 minutes duration. With 1-0 and 2-0 wins against Añorga KKE and Amara Berri KE respectively, and a 1-3 loss to Wisconsin, the Supergoats reached the knock-out stage where they lost 0-5 to Santa Teresa (Spain).

Apart from participating in the tournaments and friendlies, the Yuwa girls also got an opportunity to step on the grass of Santiago Bernabeu on June 28, as guests of Real Madrid Foundation. This 18-day Spanish sojourn would not have been possible without the fundraiser of a group of students from Mondragón University, Bilbao. The Donosti Cup project of Yuwa was also supported by Gamesa, the Spanish wind turbine manufacturers.

Team Yuwa India neither received any support from Jharkhand Football Association (JFA) or the All India Football Federation (AIFF) nor the State Government. Instead, when some of the girls including the team captain, Rinki went to the panchayat office to collect their birth certificates to apply for passports, they were heckled and manhandled by the officials. These girls, coming from poor rural families, were born at home and didn’t have birth certificates. When the Spanish Embassy asked for the certificates, they had to pay bribes to officials at the panchayat office to get their papers. This part of the story is not at all surprising in the Indian context. Rather the Gasteiz Cup success of the Supergoats is! To fathom the depth of this incredible success we have to go back five years in time.

Yuwa – An Experiment with Football

Franz Gastler, a post-graduate in International Political Economy from Boston University, came to India to work as a consultant to Confederation of Indian Industries (CII). In 2008, he joined an NGO that brought him to Jharkhand. He used to teach English to underprivileged children. Apparently a little girl asked him to teach her football. Franz agreed. He is a trained judoka and skier, and played ice hockey. He knew how sports can change lives. In February 2009, with Stephen Peterson, Greg Deming and Erik Odland, Franz Gastler founded Yuwa. Yuwa started its journey with 15 girls of Rukka village in Ormanjhi block of Ranchi district.

Jharkhand is one of the poorest states in India, ranked 24th in terms of per capita income. Even according to official data, as much as 70% people live below the poverty line in parts of the state. Rural literacy rate is 46.25%, and female literacy rate among rural population is 27%. Sex ratio is 941 (females per 1000 males). What these dry numbers indicate are pathetic living conditions for the girl child. The girls are either not sent to school or drop out very early, remain malnourished, don’t get medical treatment if they fall ill, are often married off at a very tender age and forced into motherhood; sometimes they are simply sold off. As estimated, approximately 30,000 girls from Jharkhand are trafficked every year.

This is where Gastler set up the base for Yuwa. The idea was to instil confidence in the girls through team sports, with an end objective of empowering them to take charge of their own future overcoming gender discrimination. Within a span of four years, between 2009 and 2013, Yuwa expanded from 15 girls to 300, and now covers 15 villages. 13 Yuwa girls made it to the Jharkhand state teams of different age groups, following rigorous training sessions and hours of dedicated practice. Soni Munda and Kalawati Munda represented the India team in Homeless World Cup 2011 (Paris). Thirteen-year old Pushpa Toppo made it to the U-14 girls’ national team of India. Shivani, a member of the Supergoats, played for U-13 national team and played in the AFC U-13 girls’ tournament held last year in Sri Lanka. The founder of Colorado-based Peace Pandemic, a voluntary organisation that harnesses the power of football to create opportunities for children worldwide, Jeb Brovsky visited India in December 2011 to teach the girls of Rukka one simple rule of life and football: if it moves, kick it; if it doesn’t, kick it till it moves.

Yuwa runs on the basis of a “by the community, for the community” model. Twenty girls from Yuwa’s first team are now Community Sports Leaders and leads practices of new teams. Two of them are even leading Yuwa boys’ teams. That is a huge achievement in a community where the boys are supposed to play and the girls are supposed to do household chores. Many of these girls completed coach’s training programme from Tata Football Academy, Jamshedpur, and from Baichung Bhutia Football Schools, Delhi. Yuwa intends to build a cadre of 100 Community Sports Leaders by 2015, who will be training 2000 girls. The teams are managed by the girls themselves. They find their own playing fields, which itself is a challenge in the rocky terrain. They plan their practice schedules and make their own rules. They contribute financially as well for footballs and kits. This ownership creates a sense of belonging, fellowship and independence, which in turn changes the lives of the girls. They become regular to school. They learn to take care of their health. Study classes and health classes are organized at the Yuwa club in Rukka village.

Social Impact

The positive impact is clearly visible. Franz told BBC that in a culture where girls are generally married off before they are fifteen, only 1 among the original 15 girls who joined Yuwa back in 2009 got married off at fifteen. Many of these girls, who never thought of continuing education beyond the primary school, are continuing their high school and college education. Sixteen-year old Binita Toppo, who was the custodian of the U-16 Jharkhand state team, is now preparing for her standard XII board exams. Binita lost her father when she was a little girl and her mother works as a cleaner at a nearby school. Seema Toppo, another member of the Jharkhand U-16 team, is now studying in Ranchi’s Mother Teresa School and is preparing for her standard X board exams. Football not only changed their lives, but also their attitude. Shivani, who represented India in U-13 AFC tournament, just wants to play football. Before joining Yuwa, she used to spend her time watching movies on television. Now she enjoys her football much more than Bollywood movies. Sixteen-year old Sunita Munda, who plays for U-19 Jharkhand state team, despite her playing commitments finds time to coach younger players. She summed up her change in attitude nicely when she said that earlier she used to fight a lot with people, but after joining Yuwa she learned to help others. There is a perceptible change in attitude of the parents too. In the beginning many girls kept their parents in the dark regarding their involvement with football. Now Yuwa leaders and coaches insist that the girls take permission from their mothers. The parents are poor, and some are alcoholic. Whatever they can afford, they prefer to invest in their sons. Even this attitude is changing slowly. Some parents are now impressed with their daughters and don’t mind contributing for footballs and boots. With their newfound confidence comes a sense of self-worth which sparks interest in both their education and health. This leads to a collective spirit of social enterprise which helps them to grow into a formidable economic force.


In 2011, Yuwa received the Nike Game Changer Award of $25.000, which helped them kick-start their Mumbai programme in Dharavi. 70 odd girls practise in groups at the dusty Mahim ground. Football lovers and stakeholders of Indian football can do their bit by financially supporting Yuwa, which ranges from sponsoring a pair of boots to sponsoring a child’s education or tournament participations. Make them combat poverty and patriarchy. Come forward to abolish trafficking of the girl child. Your support will go a long way to shaping their future. Help them continue to make a difference!