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Ms Sara Abdullah Pilot, Chairperson, CEQUIN India Talks About Sports to Achieve Gender Equality

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“No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half its citizens,” Michelle Obama, the former first lady of the United States of America has rightly said. Leading with this belief, CEQUIN, a Delhi-based NGO is working on the empowerment of women and girls, with a special focus on adolescence. In an exclusive interaction with The CSR Journal, Ms. Sara Abdullah Pilot, Chairperson of CEQUIN India elaborates on the initiatives of the organisation with special focus on the role of sports in achieving gender equality.

How can sports contribute toward gender equality and inclusiveness?

Sports can play a critical role in promoting gender equality and inclusion. Every player in sports is a player, whether he or she is a man, a woman, a boy or a girl. Once they are on the field, they are all players. Sports have a profound impact on individuals at any point in time, at any age, and at any level. They teach leadership, team building, focus, sincerity, and overcoming adversity and challenges.
Football, for example, is a team sport that cannot be played or won individually. Football is a male-dominated stereotyped sport, and we chose football because we wanted to break this stereotype in a way that has a greater impact on the community.  In the beginning, there was a huge participation gap between boys and girls, but over time this gap has begun to narrow. This gap in access is more prevalent because all public spaces, including public parks, are often inaccessible to girls for a variety of reasons related to patriarchy, how it affects girls’ safety, etc.
The role of sport in promoting gender equality is very effective, because it gives the girls confidence and connects them to the community around them, but this time the association has been in a very different way. People around here who believed that girls are weak and not strong enough to play football will need to change their minds. Every girl playing reinforces the message of women empowerment and gender equality in the community.

2. In India, girls are not very often encouraged to participate in sports. In such a scenario is it challenging for you to recruit more girls to play the sport?

It is true that in India girls are not very often encouraged to participate in sports and it was difficult to encourage girls to play the sport but there has been a change. It’s not that we’re satisfied with the changes, there is still a long way to go. But I think we need to recognize first how much work has been done and how much has been achieved.
We see it in the communities in which we work. What the situation was, how these girls were not stepping out of their homes, to all the way when these girls played football with us, they are so confident to jump on a bus, even get on a train to go and join a football camp somewhere across town, they’re able to withstand the pressure of getting married young to be very clear what they want to have a career and work. So, I think there is a change, but it’s a long way to go, without taking away that greater efforts have been made in this direction.
We need to understand the entire ecosystem must be addressed. It’s not just enough to motivate a woman or a girl-child to stand up for herself. Rather it’s more about inspiring the family the community to stand with her, for her. Eg: We have girls from a very conservative community. They are looking to explore a career in sports. Their families were convinced to some extent, but the bigger challenge for them was the pressure from the religious leaders. We had to work within the community. It’s not about fighting and the girl and her family going against society and the community. It’s more about working together with everyone, where all the stakeholders enable her to choose, to make those choices for her life.

3. Except for girls who play a sport themselves, the females in India are not generally aware of the basics of sports including how a particular game is played, what are the key rules, who are the important players, etc. Do you think this is a disadvantage to the female population in general?

It is not about women being aware of sports rules or not it’s more about the stereotype fixed around us that sport is for men. Has everyone in the family ever promoted a girlchild even to watch sports, forget about sending them out freely to play? Boys go out and play football, cricket and other games, they develop a community around themselves where they talk about the sport learn the rules of the game and even have their role models. The entire viewership created around any sports is male viewership, by default. This makes female sports a second-class category, where there are always restrictions. Even the sponsors are not willing to invest as they feel it’s not worth it. So, it is true that then you get into this vicious circle, and you got to break that. You must mindfully break that. You have to enter there and create a special program for girls to be able to break that circuit.
And that’s exactly what we are doing with our program. We are going in there and training those girls so that they also know they participate as well as consume sport. They also switch on their television, follow the commentary, buy that merchandise and be very much a part of the sports ecosystem.

4. India is hosting the 2022 FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup. What does this mean for CEQUIN?

India hosting the 2022 FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup FIFA is something that CEQUIN first and foremost has been very much a part of. The bidding process, and seeing India win that bid to host the World Cup, is something we have been tracking very closely for the last few years. Unfortunately, it was delayed by two years due to COVID. Where previously there were going to be 5 venues, there may be a scale down. There were a lot of plans in terms of the run-up to it, which was very exciting and very important.
If we’re talking about women’s football across the country and the kind of impact that is going to have, not just in terms of the women’s team, who’s going to be playing etc, but in terms of what effect it will have on everybody else, all the girls who are going to be watching and supporting them. So CEQUIN through the National Alliance for Women’s Football as the conveners of that alliance were very much a part of ensuring a successful bid. That is one thing. And of course, for our girls, it’s always about the role models. It’s about who they look up to. I think the time has passed now for our girls to only be able to look up to a Ronaldo or a Messi. We have such amazing talent in our country and then they can look and see and have aspirations that, oh, if that girl from Jharkhand and if that girl from Delhi or if that girl from Bengal or Kerela comes out and represents our country, then I can also do it. It’s a matter of immense pride for them.
It’s not just being a space where they come out to play and enjoy themselves and have a good time, which is of course immensely valuable in and of itself, but also something that they can make a career out of. And so, our girls have been going for this part of the FIFA legacy program to train as coaches. We see our girls involved in those programs, we’re hoping that the whole country gets behind our girls. When you have that entire momentum, that’s frenzy, that passion of supporting these girls when they go out and play.

5. Please tell us more about the activities of CEQUIN.

CEQUIN India is an organization that believes in gender equality and that equality must be brought at the grassroots level taking a holistic approach with an engagement across levels. The organization’s vision is the idea of a world where there is gender equality, where both women and men can develop their full potential, and where gender relations are based on respect, nurturing and peace.
CEQUIN India looks at 5 thematic areas – education, health, violence against women, leadership and livelihoods. We believe that when you’re working with a woman or girl, these are the five areas that you have to watch to empower them in real terms and close the gender gap.
We have four key flagship programs.
– ‘Kickstart equality programme’, which essentially uses football as a tool to intervene with adolescent girls. Once these girls are part of our program then, it isn’t just football that we do, but we do a bunch of other things, football becomes like that string that keeps these young girls engaged. While we are working with adolescent girls, we realize that’s important to intervene at these initial stages because that’s when you’re going to have a long-term impact.
– The second flagship initiative is the ‘Mardo Wali Baat’ campaign, where we work with men and boys. We feel that when you’re working on gender equality, it is essential to work with both men and women, as it’s equally important for men to realize the presence of a women partner or member in their lives and family. This was a gap, which we realized once we started working in this field. Most people working on gender equality focus on girls/women. We feel equal efforts are required to engage with boys and men as they have a critical role to play – to understand the value of equality and their responsibility towards it. It is unfair and unsustainable where we are talking about an entire society with both genders living together and we want to grow them to equality only by making efforts toward one gender. We need to get the men and boys on the same page if we want that change to come. It can’t be just the girls who are constantly battling society, fighting for space, fighting for their rights. It has to be a 360-degrees holistic approach where both genders have to be brought on the same page, reducing the gap.
– The third program is the ‘Badhte Kadam’ program, which is about livelihoods for women and girls. You might be aware that India has a steadily declining women’s workforce participation rate. It’s come to a point where we are probably among one of the worst globally. There are barely 19% of women in the workforce. It has fallen from 35% since 2005 or so. It’s a matter of concern why this is happening. Now we have more and more girls who are in school and yet lesser and lesser accessing livelihoods. We need to be building these girls’ skill sets, to enable them to have careers and become independent.
– The fourth initiative that we have is called ‘Women’s Resource Center’. The idea behind this initiative is important.  Women feel cut off from public resources and we feel they need a place where they can come together. They can access government schemes and programs and various other valuable critical information which can change their lives and contribute to their livelihood. We have resource centres across all our project centres.
Over the years this space has developed to be a significant help to promote women’s collectives and collective leadership. We initiate collective programs for them such as the Mahila Panchayat program wherein women come together in collectives, we train them and we make them aware of the laws and other provisions which are there, which helps them in spreading the information and programs among the community efficiently. During Covid, when we were not able to access police stations, these women collectors played an important role of being the first point of call for a woman in distress and these were very effective as they were located within the communities.
CEQUIN India has a strong presence in regions like Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan. We have been continually running these programs in this region and each of the regions has witnessed immense support despite the challenges.

6. Except for cricket, other sports do not get the required attention from authorities in terms of infrastructure development in India. How can this be addressed?

Yes, it is true. Unfortunately, Cricket does take over, everybody ends up being the power relation to cricket, whether it’s your TV rights, the kind of money that’s ploughed into the IPL versus football, the kind of money that the AIFF will have as opposed to a cricket association, the kind of eyeballs, the kind of coverage, the kind of stories that come out of the cricket team is quite different and much impactful.
But on the other hand, football is also the most popular sport across the world. It is the fastest-growing sport so there frankly is no reason why football can also not take that kind of front and centre stage in India and women’s football specifically. If we look at the viewership of the last Women’s World Cup that was held in 2019, it was huge, the kind of attention was much bigger than what any women’s World Cup had received in the past. So it’s not unachievable, it’s something that we see, the kind of growth and development of the women’s game across the world.
And the investment will come when more and more people participate, there is improvement in the game and there is nothing like success. So, it’s a chicken and egg kind of a situation, if you haven’t succeeded then you’re not going to have that input. But for us at CEQUIN we genuinely believe that women’s football is worth investing in. Because it isn’t just about the performance at the international level, but it’s about how it’s transformative at the grassroots in terms of the girls and their communities. So I think it’s well worth the investment.

7. What role can CSR play in improving female participation in sports in India?

CSR plays a huge role in improving female participation in sports in India. Women’s participation in football is something that is, really addressing so many multiple outcomes, and it’s not just about addressing so many of these development issues at the grassroots, but it’s also about building the game. So, it’s a win-win situation and it’s something that, I think we should have a lot more CSR funding for, which should be coming into this space because it covers gender equality, improved education, improved livelihoods, improved health. It also covers grassroots sports. So, there are lots of boxes to tick out there, and we are hoping to be able to generate and leverage more support for the initiative.

8. How has your experience been while promoting gender equality through the medium of Football in India?

We have a football initiative. That’s what we are known for. We are the pioneers in this space. We started our football initiative back in 2011. We were looking for an innovative strategy where we could help women and girls come out of their homes into the public space, build their capacities, skill sets, access to livelihoods and leadership positions in society, as well as in their homes. After a lot of thought and deliberation, we finally decided that we are going to use sports that would serve these purposes.  Football ticked all the right boxes. It is an outdoor sport, a team game and challenges gender stereotypes.
We have come a long way since then. We’ve emerged as one of the top organizations working on women’s football. We won various awards. I have been serving as the chairperson of the Women’s Committee at AIFF, and CEQUIN has received recognition for the kind of work we are doing. Many of our girls are playing competitively at the club, state as well as international levels. We have also taken it on ourselves to create a large cadre of women coaches, and we’ve been sending them for professional certification like a D license. So many of them have converted their football not just as a fun activity, but also as a proper, option for livelihood.
We are also the Conveners of the National Alliance for Women’s Football in India, a multi-stakeholder network set up in 2018. We’ve been doing consistent advocacy with all the stakeholders like AIFF, State Associations, clubs, etc. India won the bid for organizing the under 17 FIFA World Cup in India. We are very excited about what that means for women in sports in India.