SISAI (India) — Driven by dreams of winning medals for their country, two dozen girls and young women train to become wrestlers in a cluster of white one-storey buildings set on a dusty track winding through farmland on the edge a north Indian village.
Run by a husband and wife convinced that sport can fuel aspirations and build confidence, the Altius wrestling school in the village of Sisai in Haryana state, about three hours’ drive from the Indian capital, aims to change perceptions.
“There is no value of a woman in a village,” Ms Usha Sharma, India’s first female wrestling coach, told Reuters. “In a village, an animal has more value to it than a woman, as an animal gives milk and there is cost attached to it.”
Whether or not they become champions, the girls from humble families receive rare lessons in female empowerment during their training at the residential centre Ms Sharma set up in 2009, along with her husband, Mr Sanjay Sihag, a sports teacher.
Ms Sharma, 50, is a serving police officer, and her stark comments indict rural society in a country where poverty, tradition and conservative attitudes hinder women’s rights.
In the nearby fields, village women, covered from head to toe, graze cattle. Some of the students could have shared that destiny, but for the chance of a different life that the school has given them.
“When I opened the academy and we started getting medals, it felt nice to know that the same girls who used to graze cows and buffaloes were now being favoured by the men in the family,” said Ms Sharma.
Her husband manages day-to-day affairs at the academy which provides a safe space where students, aged between eight and 22, build a strong sense of sisterhood, honing the skills and resilience needed to succeed in wrestling and later life.
State government funding covers training, while parents pay about 9,100 rupees (S$149) a month for board and academic tuition, which is provided by a school next-door.
“Hostel is like family. We work, play and also study together,” said 16-year-old Swati Berwal, preparing for a training session. “We also fight with each other just like families do, but we get support from each other.”
Facilities are basic.
The girls, some of whom come from neighbouring states, sleep in two rooms, sharing beds and mattresses but often cram into the one with air-conditioning. They wake at 4am every day except Sunday and cook meals together.
They use a stone grinder to make a groundnut paste that is mixed with milk and strained through muslin for a “protein drink”.
Morning exercises include jogs, sprints, squats, push-ups and ramp work, with evenings spent on mat work and bouts.
As a defence against hair-pulling by opponents, almost all wear pageboy cuts.
On Sundays, they call home, passing around an old mobile telephone, since they have no access to internet.
Some women earn prize money, but competing at state level can also bring them government jobs, and Ms Sharma takes pride in seeing former students carving out careers, buying cars and moving ahead.
India’s national wrestling federation is going through troubled times. In August, the global governing body for the sport, United World Wrestling, provisionally suspended it for not holding timely elections.
And a former federation chief faces legal proceedings after accusations of sexual harassment by several top female wrestlers this year.
The sports ministry, which oversees the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), said every effort would be made to improve safeguards for female athletes.
“When a woman has to stand up against a strong power then she has to put a lot of things at stake, her career, her life,” Ms Sharma said, commenting on the controversy.
Ms Sharma’s husband remembers telling his sister, also a wrestler, how to respond: “You protest and slap first and then leave, and don’t think about medals.” REUTERS