Children and youth leading their change through sports and their engagement in participatory methods
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Child marriage is a significant issue in India, but Terre des hommes' Kabaddi for Empowerment program empowers girls through sports, fostering child participation and agency while addressing challenges.

This article was submitted as part of our call for articles on participatory approaches in sport for development. For more information and to find out how to submit, read the call for articles.

Child marriage remains a pervasive issue in India, where a staggering one in three of the world's child brides reside. Despite commendable progress in the country, the rate of decline in child brides falls short of the 2030 goal of eradication, as outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals. 

This deeply ingrained practice is rooted in culturally accepted negative social norms and socio-economic vulnerabilities. Girls face formidable challenges, including a lack of autonomy, limited access to resources, and restricted mobility, making it difficult to resist the pressure of child and early forced marriage (CEFM). 

Terre des hommes (Tdh) foundations Kabaddi for Empowerment program, operating in West Bengal, a state where 42 percent of young women are married in childhood, provides a ray of hope. By offering structured sports sessions, the initiative led by Tdh, and its local partners equips girls with essential life skills, empowering them to assert their agency, pursue education and employment, and ultimately postpone their marriage.

Participation and agency are intricately linked, forming the foundation of empowerment. When individuals engage in informed participation, coupled with the development of psychosocial skills and opportunities for involvement, their agency is amplified. Depending on personal values and perspectives, this increased agency fosters engagement and the feeling of efficacy, contributing to overall well-being and resilience.

Tdh’s Kabaddi for Empowerment program design is rooted in the valuable input of children, where the program implementation strategies have evolved, driven by an adaptive management approach which ensures feedback gathered from children steers the program. As the program has progressed, a deliberate shift towards actively consulting with children to create safe spaces and structures where they could take on leading roles was established.

This collaborative approach resulted in the formation of child leaders who now hold real decision-making authority, where they invite their peers to participate and challenge adult-established structures. This transformation necessitates a gradual transfer of power and control from adults to children. Facilitators in this context play the role of adult allies, providing guidance and protection while respecting children's autonomy and decision-making space. This approach empowers children to take an active role in shaping their own experiences and outcomes.

The program has taken various participatory approaches from consultative to child led processes. Kabaddi sessions are complimented by reflection circles, peer to peer communication, role modeling, participatory research and community based social action events led by child leaders and documenting/disseminating change stories through films made by the child leaders themselves. 

Knowledge sharing sessions are being conducted to understand the challenges and provide continuous mentoring support to the facilitators enabling them to embed participatory approaches in sports sessions and reflection circles with children. To promote child participation, the program identified child participation champions who now lead in raising awareness, building capacity of facilitators, and advocating the cause to end child and early marriage. For instance, The Another World mini doc project shines a light on role models, who champion gender equity and women’s empowerment, by providing training for them to share their own stories on film. This provided children the opportunity to share their stories of change, where child led participation was at the core of the designing process. The stories are told and captured on camera by the children themselves, where they champion gender equity and empowerment to influence the perceptions and behaviors of their peers, and society. Nine short films made under Another World can be accessed here.

Participatory approaches help to build the self-esteem of children, empowers them to take active roles in decision-making and problem-solving. Children in such environments feel safe, connected, worthy, respected, and hopeful, all of which are essential for their mental health and psychosocial well-being. When children are actively involved in decision-making and problem-solving, it leads to their enhanced ownership of results, which, in turn, supports the sustainability of positive changes and outcomes.

Children are heterogeneous, representing diverse backgrounds in terms of age, culture, religion, caste, and more. This diversity can pose challenges when designing content and sessions for encouraging child participation and running participatory processes. To embed child participation meaningfully in Sports for Protection programs, its critical to challenges that exist, which require solutions.

  • Resistance stemming from adult mindsets and cultural norms can impede the full participation of children and delay the process of shifting power and control to children.
  • Without established policies, structures, and organizational mandates to support child and youth participation (CYP), it becomes challenging to integrate their voices effectively.
  • Children encounter limitations in their ability to influence decision-making, and there can be weaknesses in being held accountable to them.
  • Ethical concerns surrounding safeguarding, compensation, and logistics need to be addressed in the context of child participation.
  • Child participation process’s demands flexibility. Project strict timelines can present challenges to accommodate an adaptive management approach that requires flexibility for ensuring meaningful child participation. 

Addressing these challenges is crucial to create an environment where children can meaningfully engage in decision-making and contribute to program development and governance. To address the above-mentioned challenges, and based on our learnings these are key recommendations can be considered:

  • Tailor Content: Create content that is inclusive and sensitive to the various backgrounds and identities of the children involved. Ensure it resonates with their experiences and beliefs.
  • Cultural Sensitivity: Take cultural diversity into account and adapt activities to be culturally sensitive, respecting the customs and traditions of different groups.
  • Age-Appropriate Activities: Recognize that children of different ages have varying needs and capabilities. Design age-appropriate activities and materials to engage them effectively.
  • Inclusivity: Foster an inclusive environment where all children feel respected and valued, regardless of their backgrounds. Encourage open dialogue about their diverse experiences.
  • Consultation and Feedback: Involve children in the process. Consult with them to understand their preferences and needs and use their feedback to shape and adapt the content and sessions using an adaptive management approach.
  • Flexible Approach: Be flexible in your approach, allowing for customization based on the specific mix of children involved in each session or program.
  • Training and Awareness: Provide training and raise awareness among facilitators and adults involved in these programs to ensure they understand and appreciate the diversity among children.


About the author

Paulami De Sarkar is leading the Child Protection Portfolio of Tdh in India and safeguarding focal point for Asia. With 18 years of experience in the development sector, she has experience in program planning & management in international development organizations & multinational corporations, focusing on child protection, psychosocial well-being and gender justice.


Programme Manager-Child Protection (India) and Regional Safeguarding Focal Point (Asia)
Terre des hommes Foundation


Sustainable Development Goals
5 - Gender equality
Target Group
Girls and women

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