Anjali Shah knows how gender inequality in India can negatively affect young girls. She started Pifa Foundation for the Benefit of Sports in 2007 to empower young and underprivileged women through soccer. Today the Mumbai-based non-profit CEO has joined the executive committee of the All India Football Federation and is watching her players join some of the top teams in the country.
Shah’s story, as told to The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project:
The girls in our program play in many football leagues across our city. Some of them have even started coaching younger children in their communities. We are also employ female coaches, offering them a career option. Girls are provided with regular medical check-ups and we educate them on menstrual hygiene.
Uplifting women through my work is not only a priority but the burning need of the hour in India, where gender inequality is prevalent. The process of getting girls out to play has a transformative effect on their confidence, and how their families and communities perceive them. In a country famously known for its adverse sex ratio, huge school drop-out rate for girls, early marriages, underage pregnancies and disempowerment of the adolescent girl, my work is one step toward making a difference. I aim to shatter stereotypes and give girls an opportunity to participate in a team sport that has social, mental, physical and emotional benefits for the girls.
Our youngest participants are eight and are taught the difference between the right and wrong kind of touches coming from adults in their lives, even their own family members. In Indian society, girls are very conscious of being blamed for drawing the attention of the opposite sex toward them and thus keep quiet most of the time. A lot of families inculcate a feeling that if girls talk about sexual harassment, they will ruin their reputation and it will be difficult to find a suitable match for them. Schools should educate girls to stand up against abuse. That way, women will be less tolerant of inappropriate sexual talk or pats or hugs that male workers feel are normal behavior in the workplace.
Being a woman in a male-dominated business isn’t easy. A lot of questions were asked, especially since the football scene in India is still mostly male-dominated. I keep myself inspired by making the game my teacher. Football is a beautiful game where teamwork is very important. I pacify myself by saying you win some and the other times you learn. You need to face tough days and learn from them and not make the same mistakes again and move on.
The most important trait to succeed in a male-dominated business world is to hold your ground. Don’t let anyone make you feel inferior just because football is a male-dominated sport. The rules of the game are same for both men and women.
Football is a great equalizer where your talent on the field has the power of uplifting you in society. Sports empower young people socially, mentally, physically and emotionally. A football player associated with our team not only changes herself but changes her whole family. The parents become more tolerant of their daughter putting herself first and looking after her physical, nutritional and mental needs in order to become a better player.
Girls who play sports have a better physical self-image and will not tolerate physical or mental abuse. They interact with their male counterparts and start believing that they, too, can achieve what the boys can in terms of making the game their source of earning by playing for a reputable team or earning their coaching badges.
Success for me is seeing others succeed. Witnessing the journey of a young shy girl who has never played a sport, to putting on the captain’s armband during an important football match is success. To see a girl support her family during the financial crisis with the money she earns from a coaching job is success. When a girl stands up for her rights and does not get married at a young age, we feel the game has instilled the right attitude in her. The girl’s ability to ward off male physical and mental abuse through the strength developed by her physical training goes a long way toward her being able to look after herself and her female friends.
Being elected to the executive committee of the All India Football Federation has been one of my greatest achievements. The AIFF is the highest governing body of football in India and to be able to participate in decision-making that influences this country’s football has been truly inspiring.
All the hard work involved in reaching this point has been worth it. Seeing players from the foundation make it big on the football scene in India, earning handsome salaries and becoming role models feels like I’ve done something right. Being invited by FIFA to participate in the pre-world cup tournament in South Africa was a fantastic experience. Hearing the Indian national anthem being played before a youth world cup game in India was the best feeling of my life, a dream I long cherished.
The Foundation has faced financial challenges and continues to have problems with funding as the teams grow. The cost of running programs for teams involves coaches, managers, medicals, insurance, travel, equipment, facility rentals, uniforms and staff. All the good work we do is not publicized due to a limited budget. The need for extra staff for PR, marketing, and a corporate reach program is high on our wish list. We have been getting small funding from friends and family but the absence of sponsors puts a lot of pressure on the foundation. A strategic management plan which will bring in financial support is missing sorely.
Kalpana Chawla, India’s first women aeronautical engineer to travel into space, is my most important role model. Growing up in a male dominant society, Kalpana never let her dreams of flying be affected in any way. In fact, she was the first woman to study aeronautical engineering for her bachelor’s degree. She created a spot in history for herself.