Tribal girls work on their volleyball skills in the village of Kelu Khadra. Photo: Rohit Jain

In the hills of Aravali in North India, the ball rises as the sun sets every evening as girls from the Bhil tribe, one of India’s largest tribal communities, take to the volleyball courts.

After tying her traditional chunni – a long scarf – tight around her waist and holding the ball and net, 14-year-old Lahari Gameti called out from the center of the village to the girls: “It’s 4:30, let’s go to play.” Suddenly a ragtag group of young girls bursting with energy assembled.

Every evening, vacant blocks of land in the corners of villages in Gogunda in the Udaipur district of Rajasthan come alive as young girls play volleyball, practicing their “rallying” and “passing” and learning how to “spike” and “block.”

They are also learning life skills through the game. An otherwise shy 15-year-old Rukmani says: “The game of volleyball has made me realize the power of offense and defense.

“If one doesn’t play offense, the team won’t gain a point, and if the team doesn’t play defense and stop the ball from landing on their side of the court, they will lose a point. I am learning to raise my voice out of my own concerns.”

Lahari Gameti, 14, and 10-year-old Nirmala Gameti practicing volleyball on their way to the courts in Kelu Khadra village. Photo: Rohit Jain

Sports for empowerment

The journey is a tough and long one for these Bhil girls. Belonging to a tribe and having a poverty-ridden background has resulted in them not seeing life beyond the hills around their villages. However, they not only have to compete for survival in the market system of a modernizing society, but also fight to claim space in a society dominated by upper caste Hindus.

Because of the girls’ situation, a non-profit organization called Vikalp Sansthan has taken the initiative to train the tribal girls to play volleyball and empower them to strive for a bright future.

Sport has started to fill the vacuum created by illiteracy and the lack of a higher education. Only a handful of the girls have studied up to the 10th grade in this region. Most quit their studies before primary and junior school.

In India, the school dropout rate for tribal communities is as high as 70.9% between the first and 10th grades. For other social groups, the dropout rate is about 49%, according to the Census of India in 2011. The literacy rate among tribal women is only 49.4%.

In the village of Bholau Talai, only two girls are still studying in the 10th grade.

Nirmala, a girl from the Bhil tribe, quit her studies after the fifth grade. After not going to school for a few days, she started to fear that if she returned after her break the teacher would scold or beat her. So she stopped going to school altogether.

Changing perceptions

“With volleyball, we intend to raise the girls’ confidence, eliminate their fear for their own bodies; playing on [the] ground will help them break their hesitation and shyness. We aim to surface unrealized possibilities for their future. We call this initiative sports for empowerment,” said Usha Chaudhary from the Vikalp Sansthan organization.

“After a certain age, girls stop playing outside. They hardly get to go out, but playing volleyball brings a hope for them to change the stereotype in the villages and that tribal girls can also represent themselves publicly and break the caste barriers,” said Yogesh Vaishnav, the co-founder of Vikalp Sansthan.

Durga Gameti, 14, and other girls play volleyball in the village of Kelu Khadra in Udaipur. Photo: Rohit Jain

A 2008 report, published by a United Nations’ working group for Sports for Development and Peace, detailed how sport can benefit girls and women by enhancing health and well-being; fostering self-esteem and empowerment; facilitating social inclusion and integration; challenging gender norms; and providing opportunities for leadership and achievement.

Explaining the difficulties faced by the organization to engage the girls in sport, Vaishnav said: “Initially, [the] villagers were reluctant to let their daughters play this game where they thought their modesty will be compromised. In fact, some of them said ‘what will our girls get playing this game? Will you pay them any money for it?’ Now the perception is changing.”

The girls, regardless of whether they go to school or not, have to do extensive household chores. But game time is exciting for them despite their exhaustion as it gives them a certain type of freedom.

“For this one and a half hours on [volleyball] court, we forget all our problems. No cooking, no cattle herding. We just play and have fun,” said 15-year-old Nirmala Gameti, who lives in Kelu Khadra village in Udaipur.

The volleyball initiative hopes to bridge the gender gap in the tribe as Vikalp Sansthan also gets young boys to play.

“Initially we used to fear to even touch the ball. We used to stand still on the court while the ball touched the ground,” said 15-year-old Tulsi Gameti. The ball hitting the ground means the girls’ team loses a point.

“Now after every defeat, we are learning to win,” said Nirmala.

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