Growing up in the notorious Ambedkar Nagar slum in Mumbai, I was exposed to many negative and challenging issues. Children like me were forced to grow up quickly - School drop outs, child labour, illegal early marriages and drug abuse were part of our daily reality.
At age 10, I dropped out of school in order to help support my family financially, and was sent to work in a small hotel. I was paid 600 INR per month (about $8.60 USD), all of which I handed over to my parents. Life was hard - we sacrificed a lot, even foregoing a traditional education, and it was nearly impossible to get ahead.
Fortunately, I discovered and was able to join the OSCAR Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Mumbai, which uses soccer as a tool to engage underprivileged children. Through the game, I learned about the importance of education, heath & hygiene, decision-making and social skills, like how to prevent child marriage, protect the environment and much more.
Like many other families in my community, my parents had no formal education themselves, and had no interest in learning or teaching these skills. They worked hard to provide for the family and had no time to spend mentoring their children. We were living hand-to-mouth, and these skills that would ensure a longer and healthier life, were far from mind.
The moment I first kicked a soccer ball was a revelation - I forgot all my family issues and it was not long before I was totally addicted. OSCAR has one rule: ”No school, no soccer” Having dropped out of school at 10 years old, I was nervous about going back to school after two years and joining in a class with younger kids, but my passion for soccer helped me overcome my embarrassment. I joined OSCAR as a participant, then in 2010 I became a young leader and started delivering soccer and life-skills sessions to younger kids who were just like me.
When I was 17, my family chose a girl for me and tried to force me to get married. From my work with OSCAR, I knew child marriage was wrong and I fought my parents. They were furious. They said I would shame the family and they even stopped talking to me. It was the worst day of my life. I stood up for what I believed in and they rejected me.
A year later, my fortunes changed when my story was featured on a famous Indian TV show hosted by the Bollywood star Mr. Amitabh Bachan. My parents watched the show and realised I was working for a good cause, not just to improve my own life but my community as well.
Thanks to OSCAR, I later graduated from college and was selected to attend Leipzig University in Germany. I am the first person to complete school and travel abroad in my entire family.
One of our biggest challenges is in reaching girls with our program. Girls are not typically given the same opportunities as boys in my community, and it can be difficult to persuade the parents of girls to allow them to do things other people take for granted - to wear shorts, kick a ball, and enroll in school.
We are fighting against generations of gender bias. It’s a worthy cause, but certainly not easy. ‘#KickLikeagirl’ is a project we created which aims to reduce gender bias in Indian society through soccer. I have trained 150 girls from both rural and urban communities on topics like leadership, gender equality and their right to education.
Many of the girls I trained have completed their education, are in full time employment, have passports and travelled abroad. They are confident to stand up to their parents, resist child marriage and as a result the mindset of parents is changing.
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