Until two years ago Kushal was very much like most young men in his densely populated neighbourhood of west Delhi. He spent hours hanging out on local streets with his group of friends.
“It was common for boys in my group to pass comments on girls. Harassing them felt so normal. That’s what everyone did,” says the 20-year-old.
“I was heavily influenced by my friends and behaved like everyone else did. Even when I knew I shouldn’t engage in such activities, I did because I felt pressured to be part of the group.”
“Based on my own experience of how boys behave on the streets, I never used to allow my own sister to go out. I feared for her safety.”
“Then, I came in contact with Plan International India through their outreach work and got enrolled into their Safer Cities programme. It totally changed my life. I swapped the band of boys I used to hang out with for a mixed group of local boys and girls who were working to make our community and neighbourhood safer for girls.”
“It was a journey that changed me forever. I realised how damaging it is for girls not to feel safe on streets and in public spaces. I learnt how it can deprive them of chances to learn and earn and be themselves.”
“I realised I was very much part of the problem – how gangs of boys and men standing on street corners and harassing girls make life so difficult for them. I was horrified.”
Kushal wanted to make a difference and being an athlete, he decided to use sport to champion gender equality. So, it was a perfect opportunity for Kushal when Plan International India introduced Touch Rugby sport in this community. It didn’t take long for Kushal to organise a mixed team of local boys and girls – many of whom were part of the Safer Cities programme.
“Initially it was very hard to convince girls’ parents to allow them to play rugby. Some rejected the idea outright while others feared their daughters would face sexual harassment and that it wouldn’t be safe for them. Some girls, who were part of our local group and those who had seen our work in the community, were keen to join. With time, we convinced some parents and slowly our numbers grew.”
For a deprived neighbourhood with a high crime rate, and where girls and women are rarely seen in public after dark, it was both scandalous and revolutionary to see teenage girls chasing ball with boys in the playfield.
“Boys congregated in groups where we practised with girls. In the beginning they just couldn’t believe what they were seeing was real – in fact, most people felt the same. It was something that they had never seen before.
“It was no doubt much more difficult for girls for the stares they got and the gossip that went around, but boys in the team became a target too. It wasn’t easy, but things began to change as people got used to it and they realised that we won’t give up.
With enormous hard work Kushal and his team have achieved spectacular results. The local Touch Rugby team of girls and boys has qualified to play mixed tournaments at the international level. What started as a social initiative to tackle street harassment and make neighbourhoods safer for girls has become a runaway sports success story. The sports club is thriving and now several girls are part of it.
“It’s amazing to see how girls, who were once shy and wouldn’t feel confident to step out, have become so confident through sport. It has transformed their lives and I can say it has also transformed attitudes of people in my community, including boys and men. They can see girls’ potential and what they can achieve.
“In my own home, my parents now think differently. They are supporting my elder sister to complete her university degree. They now want her to have a career.
“Bringing boys and girls together – like we do in our training – helps boys realise that girls are equal to them and that they should respect them. It also helps girls to grow their confidence in dealing with boys and men.
“Many boys are good, and they should be engaged not abandoned. I can speak from my experience that all boys can change like me.”