Camera: Ribhu Chaterjee
Video Producer: Shohini Bose
Video Editor: Prashant Chauhan
Yeh Jo India Hai Na… yahan, if women gave up sports, then who would win us Olympic medals? In 2012, out of six Olympic medals, two were won by women. In 2016, we got just two medals, both won by women, and in 2020, out of seven medals, three came from women. But why would India’s women want to give up sports? Because of this:
2010 – Members of our Women’s Hockey team accuse the chief coach of sexual harassment.
2014 – A gymnastics coach, booked for allegedly sexually harassing a female gymnast during a national camp.
2015– Four women athletes consume poison at a sports hostel in Kerala. One of them, just 15, dies. They were being harassed by their coaches and seniors.
2021– Eight women accuse an athletics coach in Chennai of sexual abuse over several years.
2022– India’s chief cycling coach sacked after a woman cyclist accused him of inappropriate behaviour while training abroad. In fact, an Indian Express report says that 45 cases of sexual harassment were reported across 24 training centres of the Sports Authority of India between 2011 and 2021.
And surely, this is not all. Many, many cases are going unreported. Why? Well, imagine the guts it would take to report a case of sexual harassment. The athlete is invariably very young, often from a village or a small town, where she would have shone in a sport despite no infrastructure, despite social pressures, and financial constraints. Add to that, a male-dominated system, where almost all sports federation bosses, senior administrators, and senior coaches – ALL are men.
And these men, also control her fate – should she be selected to a team, should she go abroad for special training, should she get extra funding – it’s all in their hands. Add to that India’s ever-present, sense of male entitlement, which allows men in powerful positions, to assume that a grope here, a touch there, a lingering massage, some lewd jokes, or just shamelessly demanding sexual favours, is fine.
How Powerful Men Take Control Over Women’s Lives & Careers in Sports
Because of all this, when a sexual predator strikes, a young athlete does fear that if she makes an accusation, she won’t be heard by the sports authorities. And that even her family, instead of supporting her, may tell her to pack her kitbags and come home. And that’s why several survivors choose silence, either for the sake of their careers or to protect their ‘family honour'.
And, to top that all, as we have seen in the case of India’s seven female wrestlers versus Brij Bhushan Singh, the Wrestling Federation of India chief despite multiple grave charges of sexual assault, the larger system also tends to favour a powerful male accused. So, FIRs are delayed by months, mandatory arrests are not made, oversight committee reports are not made public, and even the moral pressure to step down from that post of authority is not applied to the accused.
So yes, Yeh Jo India Hai Na, here, the odds are heavily stacked against women in sports. And we can’t possibly be okay with that.
Women Fight Poverty and Patriarchal Society To Reach for the Stars
But also, lets take a look at the odds that these young women beat back at home just to get into sports. Here are some real life examples –
Sakshi Malik – these days fighting an unequal battle against her own wrestling federation chief, is India’s only woman wrestler to have won an Olympic medal. She is that rare. Born in a village in Rohtak, Haryana, Sakshi’s dad was a bus conductor. Her mother worked at a local health clinic.
Sakshi has often talked about how her parents were told, ‘ladki ko ladkon ke khel mein mat daalo, uska physique kharaab ho jaayega, koyi shaadi nahi karega, kaise kapde pehenti hai,’ which sums up the social pressures, the ‘taanas’ that women athletes and their families have to fight to pursue their passion.
Many fight sheer poverty as well such as India’s former Hockey Captain Rani Rampal’s father was a cart puller earning just 80 rupees a day. Rani has spoken about how it was compulsory to take half a litre of milk to the hockey camp every day. But because she could only afford 200 grams, she would add 300 grams of water to make it a half-litre. Rani played for India when she was just 14.
Mirabai Chanu, an Olympic silver medallist, used to hitch rides in trucks to reach her sports camp.
Poverty almost pushed Sarita Devi to join the insurgency movement in Manipur.. but luckily she chose Boxing.
Deepika Kumari’s dad was an auto-rickshaw driver in Ranchi, her mum was a nurse. She trained with bamboo bows and arrows to become our top archer.
Yeh Jo India Hai Na… here, there are many many such stories of thousands of Indian girls, beating tough odds to succeed in sports. In fact, it’s this staying power that has given our wrestlers the stamina to keep up their protest against a 'Bahubali', six-time Lok Sabha MP, who has controlled their sport, and their careers over the last 12 years. But that grit is not limitless. And it’s sad to see the 'system’ just waiting for them to tire, for their resources to run out, for their motivation to crumble.
And if that happens, the loss will be India’s because it could shut the doors for many young girls, whose parents may tell them – ‘Beta, there’s no one out there looking out for you. There is no glory in sports anymore, only shame.'