November 25, 2022

Breaking gender stereotypes, one goal at a time

A day in the life of a 19-year-old football coach from Mumbai, who is using the sport to spark a conversation about gender norms in her community and encouraging young girls to play.


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6 min read
This is the final article in a 9-part series supported by the Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies. This series is part of a six month long campaign that highlights the need to include men and boys as participants in programmes focused on gender empowerment.

View the entire series here.

My name is Netra, and I am 19 years old. I am a football player and coach. I mostly train with adolescent girls and boys in my community, and use the sport as a medium to initiate conversations with them about gender norms and stereotypes.

I live with my sister and mother in Mumbai. Until recently we were staying with my maternal uncle and his family in my grandmother’s house in the same neighbourhood. Growing up in a traditional joint family, I faced many restrictions and challenges.

I was 15 years old when I was first introduced to football. My best friend at the time used to play as a part of OSCAR Foundation, a nonprofit that uses the sport to instill life skills in children from low-income communities. She encouraged me to join a game with some of our friends at the Oval Maidan after school. I was hesitant at first because I had never participated in any sport. However, I had so much fun playing that first game that I just kept coming back.

Soon after, I joined OSCAR Foundation’s programme and started going for practices regularly. Practice would start at 3.30 pm every day, so I used to rush to the field after school got over. I would carry a change of clothes and my entire football kit with me.

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At first, I didn’t tell my family that I was playing football after school. When I did break the news to them, they were most concerned about the fact that I had to wear shorts to play the game. They were even more taken aback when they learned that I often played football with boys. 

In spite of all this, I continued attending football practices. Going to the field was very therapeutic for me. While playing I would forget about all the things going on at home. Eventually, it turned into a great learning experience as well. When I got selected for the foundation’s leadership training programme, it was truly a turning point for me. Prior to the training, I had no idea what my future would involve besides household work. However, the programme equipped me with the skills that pushed me to think about my ambitions and goals.

6.00 AM: My mornings are always a bit rushed because I have to get to college. I quickly get ready and check the kitchen to see if my mother has prepared anything for breakfast. I grab some eggs and toast before leaving the house, and start walking to college to make it in time for my morning lectures.

10.00 AM: After wrapping up my classes in college, I head to OSCAR Foundation’s office. As the office is close by, I usually walk the distance. Once I reach, my first task of the day is to go over the files of all the children I’m training. As a football coach, I have to meticulously record the progress of each child and upload it on our servers in order to track their progress.

12.00 PM: I spend the rest of my time in office planning next steps for some of the projects I’ve been working on. One such project is the Learning Community initiative that I worked on from 2021–22 with an organisation called EMpower, which supports other grassroots organisations focused on empowering young people from marginalised communities. I first associated with EMpower during COVID-19 for their participatory research study titled In Her Voice. As part of the study, I, along with 24 girl leaders across India, interviewed girls around us to understand how the pandemic was affecting them.

I then joined the organisation’s Learning Community project as a mentor. I mentored 10 girls from my current batch of students, and together we organised events in our societies to create awareness about football attire and why it’s necessary for girls to wear shorts while playing the sport. We completed the project earlier this year, but I don’t want the girls that I worked with to stop their learning or training at this juncture. So, I am currently working on designing other projects and brainstorming ideas to keep them engaged and involved. 

two girls playing football at oscar foundation-gender roles
During my training sessions with girls, I often ask them to act out certain behaviours first as a boy and then as a girl. | Picture courtesy: OSCAR Foundation

2.00 PM: After a quick lunch, I head to the field for a football coaching session with the students. I love working as a football coach and I only got the confidence to become one because of the wonderful coaches that guided me on my journey, especially my first coach, Rajesh sir. He was the first person to believe that I had the potential to do more. After training me for a year, he pushed me to enrol in the foundation’s leadership programme. During the course of the programme I learned interpersonal skills and the importance of empathy and listening to others. The training made me more confident. I started actively participating in events around me. I also gained confidence to attempt playing the forward position in my games!

3.00 PM: I like to start practices with fun, energising games. I try to mix these with some activities on gender roles that I learned when I participated in the foundation’s gender training programme. This was a year-long training programme that helped me gain a deeper understanding of gender norms. The facilitators pushed us to think about stereotypes we’d come across in our own lives. I remember during this one session they used the example of football to break down certain concepts for us. They spoke about how football is commonly understood and stereotyped as a man’s game, when in reality the only thing needed to play football is a foot and a ball. So then how and where does gender come in? This really made me pause and think about my own life, and how I had to face many obstacles to be able to pursue the sport.

The gender programme motivated me to start working with girls in my locality. I decided to mobilise a team of around 38 girls to train with me. I personally went door to door to convince everyone’s parents. All that I had learned till then helped me in persuading them. It took me about two months to get 38 girls to join the team.

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I encourage my students to bring up what they’re learning in my sessions with their parents.

During my training sessions with the girls, as part of the warm-up, I often ask them to act out certain behaviours first as a boy and then as a girl. For example, I get them to imitate how boys laugh versus how they laugh and how boys walk versus how they walk. When they imitate boys, they usually walk with their chest puffed out or laugh loudly. In the case of women, they do the exact opposite. When I prod them to think about how they picked up on these differences in behaviours, it dawns on them that they’ve only observed these behaviours in their immediate environment. Similarly, when I have sessions with boys, I try to push them to question what they think it takes to play football or any sport, and why they think girls don’t possess those skills. 

I also encourage my students to bring up what they’re learning in my sessions with their parents. Some parents do not respond positively to these learnings at all. I’ve observed, however, that mothers are usually more understanding.

6.30 PM: I wrap up practice and head home for the day. After freshening up, I sit down to study for a bit before joining my family for dinner. I catch up with my mother and sister and tell them about my day while we eat.

9.30 PM: As I get ready to go to bed, I sit down to write in my journal. It’s something that truly helps me unwind. This is a practice I picked up during my leadership training programme, when I discovered that writing helps me think and find solutions whenever I’m feeling stuck. Sometimes I also stick flowers in my journal that, I think, represent my feelings.

Today I’m writing about a conversation I had with my mentor, Simran, who was also the manager of the gender training programme. Talking to her always strengthens my resolve to continue working with young girls and boys and help them step outside the confines of gendered roles.

My dream is to build a world where girls and boys can play together as equals, and where girls can experience the same joy and freedom I felt when I first started playing football. Men think they have a lot of power on account of being men, but that’s not true. Women work hard—in fact, they do unpaid work at home and they go outside to work as well. I believe that if we can help men and boys understand some of this, a lot of our problems will be resolved. 

As told to IDR.

Know more

  • Read this article to learn how government schools and colleges can actively promote the participation of women in sports.
  • Read this qualitative evaluation about a sports-based adolescent girls and young women’s empowerment programme in Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai.
  • Read how a young cricketer in Kolkata is helping her community rethink gender equality.

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Netravati is a football coach and currently works with the OSCAR Foundation. She is also pursuing her TYBA in sociology at KC College, Mumbai.