"I would like to go to school to grade 12 and become a beautician. Anyway, not to get married until I'm 21.
But I know I probably won't have that choice...."
Nandani, 15 years old.
Their names are Mamta, Sabhana, Pooja, Maya, Nandani, they are between 5 and 15 years old. There are about a hundred of them, divided into two groups according to age. Some are regular attendees, following the programme every day, others are a little less regular. The majority of them live in the village of Dohani, in the Kapilvastu district. We are in the Terai, barely 2 kilometres from the border with neighbouring India. Here, there are no mountains on the horizon but hectares of fields as far as the eye can see. Wheat, rice, maize, mustard forge the landscape when they are not drowned under the morning fog. In this month of March, it is sometimes necessary to search for a long time for the balls which are lost between the high herbaceous plants which surround the football ground. A rather rudimentary pitch, made of earth, where cones and cups serve as goals. The girls don't mind, as they usually play barefoot. The most important thing for them is to be able to play. And with enthusiasm!
Until recently, playing football, or even practising a sport, was unimaginable for all these girls. The village of Dohani and its farming region are locked in a hyper conservative patriarchy where men (and boys) reign supreme. Girls have no say and, once they reach puberty, they have only one future: to marry, and this is often as early as 16 or 17 years old. Excessively few girls are able to continue school beyond grade 7 or 8, and gender-based violence is an unavoidable part of everyday life.
The Atoot association was born out of this observation, a little over 4 years ago. The aim is to empower these girls, to support them in making their own life choices. The first thing to do is to help them believe in themselves, in their abilities. For Atoot, this means education courses (English, Nepalese, maths), life skills workshops (on children's rights, early marriage, hygiene, menstruation, etc.) and, above all, playing football. "Already, by playing football, the girls become aware of their bodies," explains Monica, one of the four members of the local staff. But they also gradually gain confidence in themselves, in their personal capabilities, but also in the group. The football sessions are also an excellent way to learn how to work as a team, and to settle conflicts peacefully. In the early days, a foul or a bad pass would immediately lead to shouting or even quarrels. This is so much a part of everyday life here. Now it's all about dialogue and understanding."
The impact? You only have to spend a few days with these girls to realise this. All of them, from the youngest to the oldest, are so different from the girls you meet in the Terai. They have acquired a real self-confidence, are very comfortable, speak to you without lowering their eyes, laugh without hiding their mouth with their hand, invite you without hesitation to come and see their house, their personal environment. On the football pitch, they do not hesitate to steal the ball from the few boys present*, to dribble them, to get angry if they try to abuse them. In the classroom they shout out the answers, jostle for the floor.
But the work is slow. It is not enough to allow these girls to gain confidence in themselves and their abilities. The hardest part is to change the mentality within the communities, and certainly to convince the men.
* A boy can join the project if he brings 3 grils
"Khanaa dinus!" (give me food!) Nandani, 15, immediately stops our discussion when her brother orders her to serve him. Nandani gets up, picks up a plate, covers it with rice, douses it with lentil soup and hands it to him. Not a thank you, hardly a glance. Boys demand, girls obey - this is the daily reality in this very conservative part of southern Nepal.
Like others, Nandani would like to continue playing football every day, to follow the education sessions. But like other girls of her age, she is becoming more and more irregular. "My father and my 3 other brothers work in India, in Mumbai. My mother is mainly in charge of the cattle. With my sister-in-law we have to do everything. I wake up at 5am, brush my teeth, take a shower and then cook for the others. Then I have to look after the house, clean, before going to school. When I get home, it's the same thing again, till the evening. Actually, I have mostly to prepare myself to get married. So my mother doesn't want me to follow the project anymore, or I have to get up an hour earlier. "
Some of her friends have already stopped the programme. Some of them are a bit older and are already married anyway, like her 25-year-old sister-in-law who already has two daughters, aged 9 and 6. "If it's not the parents who are holding them back, it's the other boys" says Sharanya, programme manager of the non profit. They criticise them for exposing themselves on a football field, for shaking their boobs, for not staying at home, etc. As soon as they reach puberty they are under constant pressure. We do everything we can to make sure they don't give up, and even when they leave the project we continue to follow them regularly"
Nandani tells me that she would like to continue school until the end, then learn the profession of beautician, not to get married before 21. "But I already know that this will be impossible" she sighs...