Yuwa India: Edina Grads Combat Poverty and Patriarchy
Franz Gastler stands on a soccer pitch in rural Jharkhand, India, surrounded by more than 200 girls kicking, dribbling, punting and passing. The balls are threadbare, the girls are barefoot, and the field is little more than a dusty patch of cleared ground.
It's a remarkable sight; not for the quantity of players or the quality of their game, but because these girls are doing something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: playing soccer.
Jharkhand, which gained official statehood just ten years ago, is one of the poorest provinces in India. The capital city is little more than a teeming slum, only forty-five percent of its more than 600 villages have electricity and the literacy rate is below forty percent among women. In the north, Maoist revolutionaries abduct children, bomb buses and fight running battles with soldiers and security personnel. On his way home from New Delhi a few days earlier, Gastler had to stop short because rebels had blown up the train tracks. Young girls in Jharkhand, for the most part, work for their families until they are married off—often at as young as 13—and then they work some more. Wash, rinse, repeat. Playtime doesn't enter into the equation.
"Most girls here are shockingly isolated," Gastler says. "Some of them lived right next door to each other but had never met before they became teammates. Their families control their lives, their destinies. A lot of these girls are little more than indentured servants." Gastler once witnessed an 18-year-old boy carrying nothing but a cell phone while his nine-year-old sister struggled after him with a bag of cement balanced on her head.
Gastler, a 29-year-old Edina High School alum, Harvard graduate and self-professed child of privilege, is hoping to change all that. In 2008, he founded Yuwa along with three other members of the EHS class of 2000: Greg Deming , Stephen Peterson and Erik Odland. What began as a scholarship program has evolved into a powerful model for engaging local communities and combating gender inequality.
"Soccer bridges the gap," says Deming, 29, Yuwa's director of operations and fundraising. "The girls here are cut off from everything; they don't have any opportunities. They're slaves to their parents and then they're slaves to their husbands, and they never have a chance to connect to the world at large. Soccer draws them out of their households and brings them into a positive environment." Suddenly, the girls have friends, allies and a network of support. School attendance jumps dramatically. Even the other villagers begin to see the girls as people, rather than creatures of burden.
"Yuwa turns these girls into a team, in every sense," says Peterson, 30, the program's director of finance and development. "The changes they go through are astonishing. They start out very defeated, very beaten down. But after just a few weeks, you see their heads lift, their voices get louder. They start to smile, to laugh. It's a stark contrast."
Each team starts with a coach. That's all Yuwa provides at first. Girls find the field, schedule practices and save up for a soccer ball, all without financial assistance from Yuwa. "It makes it theirs," Peterson says. "It's about complete ownership."
After four months of practices, 20 times a month, Yuwa finances two thirds of the cost of a pair of shoes. It wasn't always that way, Peterson says. "At first we tried just buying equipment for the girls, but then we'd see a father wearing his girl's jersey or his girl's shoes. If they've worked for it, saved for it, fought for it, it makes it so much harder for people to take it away."
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