Using grassroots sport to tackle gender segregation
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a girl mock kicks a boy while playing ultimate frisbee
Project KHEL is using ultimate frisbee to bring about gender awareness and tackle gender segregation at the grassroots.

If you ever go to a co-educational school in India, do try asking the children there to get into a line. Almost always, you will see them get into same gender lines or have all the girls in the front and the boys behind them.

While discussing how gender inequality shows up in everyday spaces, one of the lesser spoken about aspects is gender segregation. Institutionalized gender segregation shows up in our country not just within homes, but also educational institutions. Most parents prefer sending their children to same gender schools, and the ones who do send their children to co-educational schools end up having girls and boys seated separately, standing in separate lines and playing different games during physical education classes. That interacting with other genders is wrong is a value pushed down the throats of children through steady and regular doses of shaming and guilt.

As one would expect, sensitivity is the first casualty when children are discouraged from engaging with the opposite gender. Children grow up without understanding what makes the other genders human.

There are girls in our country who have never had eye contact with their fathers and there are boys who grow up without acknowledging and respecting the emotional and physical labor that goes into running a household. There is sexual curiosity, but no one normalizes the feelings and enables respectful contact with the opposite sex, leading to various sexual harassment instances from young perpetrators.

Creating spaces of gender integration through sport

Project KHEL is a Lucknow based non-profit that harnesses the power of play and sports to create positive impact in the spaces of gender, pluralism and sense of self. Though we do this across all programmes, the focus of this article is on our use of ultimate frisbee. Ultimate frisbee a mixed-gender sport that is self-officiated, even at its highest international level.

During one of my first conversations with an ultimate frisbee athlete at Project KHEL, we began talking about defense. I guessed that like football, there would be zonal-marking and man-marking, but was immediately corrected by her that it is ‘person-marking’ and not ‘man-marking’. She shared that our team comprises both male and female players and how wrong will it be to not acknowledge one entire half of the team in our language! For me, this was evidence that the sport and the way it was used by the organization was paving a way for gender neutral language to get normalized. I immediately understood how Project KHEL uses this sport to bring about change – making sure that our young players change the way they speak. In later conversations with our senior coaches and mentors I learned how bringing about this change in language was in itself a long journey that took years of repeated corrections from them to influence such a seemingly small change.

I also learned that in the initial years, during every tournament, it was the assumed role of the female players to fill empty bottles for the team. This prompted our head coach to come up with rules that no girl would go to fill water for the rest of the team. Sometimes he would casually ask the male players to fill everyone’s bottles, fully normalizing in tone and practice a player’s duty to fill water for their teammates. Six years on, because of these small but consistent interventions, we now have everyone chip in to fill water bottles, irrespective of their gender. As young players enter the team, the senior players take on the responsibility of orienting them of the values they have internalized in our play space. Again, this seemingly small behaviour change has immense meaning in a country where it is taken for granted that a sister or mother would do such chores and a brother or a father would never so them.

During one of my visits to an ultimate training center run by the senior ultimate athletes, a boy wanted to urinate, and requested permission to do so behind the trees next to the field – as the washroom was far away. In any other sporting space, such a request would be deemed completely reasonable. But the female coach, who was also of a similar age as the boy, pointed out that not everyone who is playing here has the privilege to urinate in the open, referring to the girls present in the practice, and asked the boy to go to the washroom.

Impressed by this, I tried having more interactions to understand how a young person thought of something like this. She shared that the male players in the main center are not allowed to go topless or lift their shirts to wipe their faces or wear sleeveless vests, because the same isn’t extended to the female players in our society. While both instances cause irritation among the male participants, it also draws attention on the little privileges that boys have that do not get extended to other genders in the context we operate. Women face the brunt of inadequate public sanitation spaces, and policing around their bodies. The senior players who understood this concept are trickling it down to the new ones! Once again, these things took years of constant reinforcement to bring about the change in thought behaviour and language.

Learnings and challenges from our attempt at creating self-sustaining spaces of gender integration

As is clear from the examples cited, our work depends on being able to communicate some core values to children and young people, hoping that they take it forward and transform the world. We’ve constantly run into challenges and learnt from them through the years. We want to highlight some of them here:

  1. Accommodation always precedes transformation: We started out with keeping the status quo between boys and girls in teams before we could encourage girls to take their space. Our initial focus on most of our centers has been to train girls who have been denied play-time, to become better athletes and communicators. We have learnt from our experience in the initial years that we needed to empower the marginalized genders first, before we make the push for the kind of culture we want in our spaces.
  2. Imitation before innovation: We want our athletes to not just learn our values as rules, but also be imaginative enough to see how to apply them in different contexts. However, sometimes we need to be happy with young people doing exactly what they are told, till this blind practice becomes a habit and transforms into a general attitude.
  3. Even though we have a beautiful sport like ultimate frisbee that has mutual respect, conflict management and standing up for what is right ingrained in how the rules are formulated, we need to remember that social influences can rob it of some of its best features. It is not uncommon to see tokenism in ultimate frisbee, where male players dominate the game to win and women players are just there to avoid their team’s disqualification. So, a sports programme catering to grassroots changes cannot just be about a particular sport as a tool, expecting that change will come just from playing the sport – rather it is the people who run the programme, reminding the players every single day of the values they want to impart through it.


This article was written by a facilitator at Project KHEL, a Lucknow (India) based non-profit that harnesses the power of play to create impact in the spaces of gender, pluralism, and sense of self.



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

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