For an Indian athlete or sportsperson, nothing can be better than putting on his/her national colours and representing the country at an international event. Unfortunately, for a lot of female athletes in India, this comes with a heavy cost that includes sexual exploitation, lack of facilities and absence of any respect or empathy.
Former Indian football captain Sona Chaudhary is trying to raise her voice about all of that. As I spoke with her last evening, she revealed some startling facts about the harsh difficulties she had to face while growing up as a female footballer in the country and also how badly athletes are treated by coaches.
Chaudhary believes there is much more to the issue of sexual exploitation of women in Indian sports than what her book ‘Game in Game’ mentions. “I wrote this book because as a captain, I felt the pain of my juniors but could not do anything to help them,” she said.
Born in an orthodox farming family in Haryana, Chaudhary dreamed big right from her childhood, and was active in a number of sports including softball, athletics and Sepak Takraw. Despite growing up in a small town, Chaudhary had high aims and also “loved reading and writing” apart from sports.
“I was good in studies, focused on my goals and wanted to make my parents hard work to pay off. My mother sacrificed a lot for me,” she said while recalling her younger days.
Chaudhary developed a liking for football around the age of 14-15, and that is when she started pursuing the sport seriously. Unfortunately, no football coach was ready to take a female player under his wing and Chaudhary learned to practise by herself.
“I was never provided the coaching or the infrastructure to hone my skills and was forced to do everything on my own. In fact, I remember I used to take my own football to the ground for practice as the authorities refused to provide me the same since I was a girl,” she said.
Things got worse as she grew up as coaches did not agree to train her for a very bizarre reason. “Coaches refused because they fear being linked romantically to the player and spoiling their reputation in the society,” she revealed, much to my astonishment.
But there are plenty of positive memories for her too. Chaudhary idolised Indian athletes Shiny Wilson and Ashwini Nachappa along with German tennis star Stefi Graf and Brazilian footballing legend Pele. Recalling how she was influenced by Pele, she said, “I could not find any role model in football except for Pele and used to look for his pictures in magazines. I wanted to see how he played and copy that into my own game.”
Despite all the difficulties she faced, Chaudhary was relentless in pursuing her dream of playing for the country and she managed to achieve exactly that in the year 1996. She fondly recollected how delighted she was to have “those five letters (INDIA) on the back” of her shirt.
“I made my debut for the Indian team in 1996. I still remember every moment as if it was yesterday. It was an out of this world experience to get those five letters (INDIA) on my back. I was so proud to say that I play for India.”
Learning about the ugly side
Chaudhary was not aware of any exploitation taking place when she was rising through the ranks of the domestic system. However, as she grew up and started attending camps, she heard seniors talk about the misdoings of the management and association officials.
“It happened with other people but I was not able to understand because I was really young. We used to hear seniors talk about the management’s wrongdoings but no one complained because they did not want to be thrown out of the team.”
The first time she came across an incident of possible sexual exploitation was during a national event, where Chaudhary was captaining the Haryana team. “In a national tournament, we were at a sports complex and as I was arranging logistics for my teammates. I heard from them that a player from another state team came crying to them.
“On probing more, I learnt that she was told that there was a press conference and needed to be there at a hotel. However, there was no press conference and upon reaching the hotel, the player was told that she had to ‘compromise’ with a state association official if she wanted selection in the Indian team.”
“She refused to do that but we never saw her after that tournament,” Chaudhary said.
Exploitation has many forms, and Chaudhary even recalled how she had to literally “fight” with the misbehaviour of her association officials before eventually deciding to leave the Haryana state team.
“One particular state association official was quite corrupt, horrible in his demeanour and did not behave properly with my team members,” she said. “I was asked to sign on various forms for getting kits and certificates but never got anything in reality.
“We had to buy our own kits and pay for our own food while going to tournaments in other states. The state association did not pay any money for food and sometimes we had to stay hungry due to lack of money,” Chaudhary said.
She also revealed that some officials “got extra certificates from the tournament committee and used to sell them to make money.”
When I asked her if she wanted to name anyone or was willing to take any official to court, Chaudhary said, “I would not like to take any names. I have no intention of taking anyone to court but want to work towards cleaning up the system through awareness and reform.”
Chaudhary believes that this problem of exploitation of female athletes and corruption in the management happens in most sports in the country. “It happens in every sport and at all levels. The approaches can be different but they happen at all levels,” she said.
She was pretty candid about why players who were subject to exploitation from officials did not speak about this with anyone. “There would have been no use of complaining as we knew what the end result would be,” she said in a sad tone.
“The course of action that follows has negative impact on players only, and they do not want their hard work to go down the drain. There is clear gender discrimination in sports and there is not a lot of female representation in the administration.
“You can check for yourself, how many females are there in various state associations?” she asks.
A long term fight that needs everyone’s support and reform
The former Indian captain, who now lives in Varanasi with her family, said that this issue needs a lot of media attention and support from politicians. Chaudhary also believes that corrective measures should be taken right from a beginner level.
According to Chaudhary, coaching standards in India need to be improved drastically. She believes that there should be bare minimum parameters that coaches need to fulfil.“Coaching standards are really poor and are not up to mark. They have no fear, insecurity and do not care about their jobs.
“Coaches should be fit as well and should undergo fitness tests regularly. They should also be given all sorts of training,” she said.
Infrastructural improvement and media attention are other steps that should be taken in order to make football a viable profession for females in India, according to Chaudhary. She also feels that football deserves the same amount of attention and respect as cricket gets.
“It starts at home and girls are not advised to play football because it is believed it is a boys’ game. Lack of awareness due to media attention and poor infrastructure prevent females from taking up football,” she said.
She also hopes that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) will work towards creating a professional football league for women in India and that there will be a committee set up for looking into misdoings.
The startling revelations made by a player who has captained the Indian national football team are quite compelling and need to be taken seriously. The fact that it has taken such a long time and so much courage for one person to speak the truth indicates the sheer impracticality of being a female athlete in the country.
Not only are they not provided with proper infrastructure, female athletes are constantly subjected to a lot of scrutiny and hardship. Pushpa Mishra, a former national level swimmer and diver, completely agrees with Chaudhary and believes that the problem is quite huge.
“I worked really hard, winning a lot of medals for several years, but it did not get me anything in return. What Sona Chaudhary has done is quite brave and she has merely voiced the anguish of many athletes and ex-players from around the country,” she said.
In a country where one particular sport is considered to be a religion and is heavily male-dominated, females from other sports are dealt with a hard bargain. Speaking up does not seem to be a reasonable option either, with constant fear of social backlash and invasive scrutiny into their personal lives.
These are big questions staring at Indian sports, and something needs to be done urgently.