Indian Women’s Football : Stones of Struggle

Is the Indian women’s football team just a myth? Do Indian women really lack the spirit of the game or is football for Indian women more than just a game? Aparajita Dutta takes a look at the struggle women footballers endure and talks about the possibility of  bailing Indian women’s football out of its current dismal state.

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.

― Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex(Opening lines of Book II)

The Indian Women’s football team was formed way back in 1948 when India became affiliated with FIFA. However, in a newly independent India with a strong patriarchal discourse, developing a strong women’s football team was not that easy. Ignored for decades, the history of the team’s formation has taken on an almost mythical aura. However, the blooming of leagues in football-loving regions like Goa, Bengal, and Manipur around the 1970s, with matches drawing thousands of fans, reveal the existence of Indian women football players at that time. Ending as runner’s up in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup 1979, coming a respectable third in 1981, and finishing second in 1983 bear testimony to the team’s achievements. Yolanda D’ Souza was one of the notable women players at that time. However, it was only in the late twentieth and early twenty first century that the team seemed to get some attention, , with the AIFF declaring that they wanted a “fresh start” for the side.


Source: Al Jazeera
Source: Al Jazeera

‘A fresh start’ 50 years after it was formed? Sounds both hopeful and bizarre, doesn’t it? But it was a knee-jerk reaction after FIFA dropped the Indian women’s football team from their world rankings in 2009, since the team had been inactive for about 18 months. This threatened the existence of the side and spurred AIFF to focus on the team. The very phrase, “fresh start”signifies that even after half a century of its formation, the team had not been given any attention. Six years have passed after AIFF’s statement: “We have decided to concentrate on the youth level and start participating gradually for the senior level tournament.”  Have they been really successful in improving the condition of the women’s national team?  In this day and age, when social media plays a vital role in spreading awareness, there is only one significant (albeit unofficial) Facebook page on the Indian women’s football team. The page has a sorry count of around five thousand likes. Compare this with the page on Indian men’s football team, which has more than 172 thousand likes.

The numbers show that very few people in this country are concerned with women playing football. Sports persons like Saina Nehwal (Badminton), Sania Mirza (tennis), Anju Bobby George ( track and field) , Dola Banerjee (archery),  and Mary  Kom (boxing ) have made the headlines with their achievements. But how many people really know of  Indian women footballers like Oinam Bembem Devi or Shanti Mullick — the only woman footballer to receive the Arjuna award, India’s premier sporting honour, Yolanda D’ Souza , and Chaoba Devi? .

In recent times,  some groups  are trying their best to promote football among Indian women. Among such groups, Yuwa deserves a special mention. A look at its website will reveal its primary memorandum:Yuwa Uses football to Empower Girls in India. The use of football to help Indian girls is perhaps one of the boldest moves made by this Jharkhand-based NGO.  Founded in 2009, Yuwa has been fighting child marriage, illiteracy, and human trafficking through football and education. The group has had to fight social and political obstacles,  much of it coming from the state officials. In 2013, it was reported that Spain-bound Yuwa girls allegedly faced severe abuse from Panchayat officials of Jharkhand when they applied for their birth certificates to get their visa. According to Hindustan Times,the girls were slapped, asked to give bribes, and forced to sweep the office before they were given their birth certificates.  In spite of such treatment from the government, Yuwa now boasts of 600 members and a team of 250 players, out of whom 150 practice daily.

While Yuwa has been initiating girls into the  game in Eastern India, Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) in Maharashtra’s Jalna district boasts of coach Rafik Shaikh, under whose guidance four girls have been selected for the state team of Maharashtra to play in the national under-16 tournament. In an interview taken in 2014, coach Rafik Shaikh talks about his struggle to kindle the love for the beautiful game amongst young girls and help them to come forward and play football. The bold confession made by Sheetal Mansare (16), the goalkeeper of Maharashtra’s state team, is perhaps an incredibly cherished trophy for the proud coach and the school: When we wear shorts, some girls ridicule us but we cannot pay attention to such things or they will affect us negatively.

“When we wear shorts, some girls ridicule us but we cannot pay attention to such things or they will affect us negatively”

Besides, incidents like the recent fatwa by maulvis that led to cancelling an exhibition match for women in Chandipur village in West Bengal, don’t augur well for women’s football. The match which was cancelled because women footballers were accused of wearing tight dresses, leaves us in no doubt about the antagonism of the ruling officials towards women playing football.

Apart from being forbidden to play the game itself, women footballers in India face discrimination in every sphere of life.In 2010, the Indian women’s football team went to play a match against Sri Lanka in Goa. They had to travel by train for five days to reach the venue, as opposed to the men who arrived by plane. While the men’s national team stayed in five-star accommodations for its camp, the women had to stay in a dormitory. They did not have their own training uniforms and had to take care of their own domestic chores.

From a lack of proper uniforms to a lack of organization, women’s football in India is strewn with challenges.Officials won’t even allow matches under floodlights, citing the lame excuse of women’s security. In a country where 30 percent of cricket spectators are women, this excuse falls flat and reveals the organizer’s reluctance in bearing the financial burden for women playing football.

The rural poor and the urban middle class nurture a social structure that forbid Indian women from playing football. Most of the urban population consider the game too manly for their convent-educated girls. Being a body contact sport, football creates a sensation of fear among parents. Injuries are common in the game, and are not restricted to legs or hands or heads. Chances are, a girl might get hit in the abdomen, thereby suffering injuries in her reproductive organs. This, in turn, may bring with it a series of social humiliations in a country like India where early marriage, child marriage, and the dowry system are rampant.Lack of proper education among the rural people, the lack of a sense of hygiene, and the practice of domestic violence against women prevent most parents from allowing their daughters to play football.

Add to this the lack of infrastructure and proper healthcare—one of the main hindrances in the development of women’s football in India. There is need for a complete overhaul of the infrastructure, including hygiene and education on the game.

Even though football is a gender-indifferent game and countries like Germany have as strong and talented a women’s team as the men’s, the story is quite different in India. A woman’s physical appearance has become a significant obstacle in the path of the development of women’s football in India. Countries like,Japan, and England boast of powerful women’s football teams. The German women’s football team currently graces the top position in FIFA’s list of women’s football teams, followed by USA and France.

Football for women in India still remains confined to middle class and lower middle class families. This demographic, with all its insecurities, prevents aspiring women footballers from considering the game as a profession.  Sample this: In Manipur, which boasts of a strong women’s football league (winning 17 titles  in the Indian Women’s Football Championship), the local body gives little importance to its women footballers. Chaoba Devi, who had represented India on numerous occasions, was offered the job of a constable—an offer that she rejected. Kumari Devi, another noted footballer from the state, (who hails from a lower middle class family) had to accept the post which was given to her. In general, women footballers strive for financial support after retirement. Those who manage to get jobs are not given a position higher than that of a clerk.

At present, there are very few leagues and championships in India for women footballers. Among them, the Indian Women’s Football Championship, conducted by the AIFF since 1991, deserves mention. If the dream of Indian women’s ISL comes true, perhaps it will prove to be a landmark in the history of Indian women’s football.

However, the gradual rise in momentum has led the AIFF to even think about holding an Indian Super League (ISL) tournament for women in mid-2015. This is likely to be on the same lines as the hugely popular men’s league first held in 2014. However, so far just two I-league clubs – Bangalore FC and Pune FC have responded. This has led to doubts regarding the feasibility of the tournament altogether.


Source: The Hindu
Source: The Hindu

Six years have passed after the declaration of having a “fresh start” by the AIFF. Even now, matches are getting cancelled, women footballers are being abused by state officials, and are facing discrimination from every sphere of life. The status update given by the team on its Facebook page(on 1st April 2015)represents the current sorry state of affairs.Since the U-14 India Girls Football Camp has started in Gujarat, AIFF has not given a single update except for their AFC Women’s Day Celebration on 8th March, 2015 and the players’ names who are attending the camp.When will AIFF ever learn to give importance to Women’s Football?

This posits a serious threat to the development of football among Indian women. A convoluted religious–social–political circuit has been conspiring against this development. The time has perhaps come for each and every one of us to raise our voices. Let us not restrict the Indian women’s ISL to the pages of a “future impossible tense”.Now is perhaps the time for more Yuwas and Rafiks to come forward and initiate more Indian women into the spirit of the game of football. Appreciation, not hindrance is required from the state—both at the local and the national level. This country has nurtured scholars like Gargi and Maitreyee, and leaders like Indira Gandhi. Why shouldn’t it nurture world-class women footballers too?


  1. BoriaMajumdar, “Forwards and Backwards; Women’s Soccer in Twentieth Century India”,Soccer, Women, Sexual Liberation: Kicking Off a New Era,Routledge, 2003
  2. Jennifer Doyle, “A World Cup Dream Revives India’s Women’s Team

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!