Founding Story: Yuwa, India

How one young woman's wish to play led to one of the first football programmes in eastern India for girls

From the wish of one young woman to be coached in football to an organisation that enables girls and young women to overcome violence, discover their self-worth, and take their futures into their own hands: all through the power of education and football.

Would he coach a football team?

Without the imploring question of a bright-eyed 12-year-old girl at a school in rural Jharkhand, India, Yuwa may never have come into existence.

Franz Gastler, who founded Yuwa in 2009, had barely considered playing, let alone coaching football. Though he had spent many years teaching young people downhill skiing back home in Minnesota, he wasn’t entirely convinced that this experience would compensate for his lack of football knowledge.

“I don't actually play but, you know, I could look into it and organise something if you wanted,” he responded, not wishing to quash her enthusiasm.

Franz had originally come to India to work with an organisation on models of Corporate Social Responsibility. Soon disillusioned by the lack of connection to the communities these models aimed at supporting, he set about gaining “on-the-ground” experience. He began working at a rural development organisation and volunteering as an English teacher at a government school.

Then came the request from the budding young footballer. As well as setting up a team at her behest, Franz organised a tournament. One day for girls, one day for boys.

On the day of the girls’ tournament, more than 100 eager young players flocked to the pitch. The following morning, not a single boy arrived. Keen to understand why this had happened, Franz consulted the local community. ‘Because there was no prize for winning’, he was told. For the girls, the opportunity to play football had been great enough a reward.

Instead of creating a football programme for both girls and boys as originally planned, Franz decided: “Let's just have a girls’ football programme, because obviously they're the ones who want to play and they're the ones who have the greater need in terms of opportunity and a space where they can come together.”

In rural Jharkhand in eastern India, where five out of ten girls drop out of school early because of child marriage or child labour, Franz engaged members of the local community to set up a football team for girls combined with an after-school class.

It was one of the first football programmes in eastern India specifically designed for girls.

The word spread. A single team of players soon grew into a league of several hundred football-playing girls.

In 2012, Rose Gastler (then Rose Thomson) arrived in India on a post-graduate scholarship researching how the use of sports could support girls’ development. Though initially sceptical about a programme run by a fellow US American – and a man – Rose was soon struck by the ownership the young women had over the programme. “These teams very much belonged to them, they were involved in the decision-making; the teams were their space.”

Following the completion of her post-graduate programme, Rose returned to India to continue working at the organisation: “I saw the potential to have more programmes that would help these girls to take control of their lives in a more meaningful way.”

She spent the following three years managing the education programmes, recruiting a woman from the community to carry out workshops on a range of topics from health and wellbeing, to team building or future planning. In addition to five practices a week, the players would attend one such session.

Rose noticed how well the football and educational sessions complemented each other: “The trust that's established on the team and through the practices is used as a base upon which they're able to have meaningful conversations and participate in different activities related to topics that would normally be considered taboo.”

Though Rose planned to return to the US when the programme was set up, she was again compelled to stay: “The girls had this incredible hunger to learn, they wanted more classes and more consistency.” So much so, that they asked for lessons at five o’clock in the morning so that they could attend them in addition to football practice and regular school.

“But even though they were literally working from dawn to dusk every day,” Rose recalls, “the girls were falling behind academically each year.” The amount of sessions was simply not enough to offer them the skills they needed to pursue higher education and a career. Rose and her colleagues realised the girls needed a full-time alternative to the curriculum of the state-run school. 

“We had put on a couple of summer schools when the girls had a break from their normal school. And they loved it, saying ‘please start a Yuwa School’!”

In April 2015, Yuwa School became a reality. “In many ways,” Rose comments, “I consider that first batch of girls as co-founders of the school. They were so involved in the process and they were very much the inspiration for it.”

Today, the school has 94 students and 10 full-time teachers, and recently celebrated its very first graduation class. Eight out of nine of the graduating students received full scholarships to top class universities in India, Spain, and Bangladesh.

Over the years, Yuwa School has been housed in different locations, but the aim is to secure a permanent campus: “The school is, of course, the students and the teachers, not the building,” Rose says, “but a permanent campus offers greater stability and is really important in terms of building trust with the families the community; to trust that this is not something that's just going to disappear.” 

Having moved all activities online throughout much of the coronavirus pandemic, the Yuwa team has become ever-more aware of how important a shared physical space is for the girls.

“In mid December,” Franz comments with a note of relief, “the state government lifted the ban for in-person school for classes 10-12 as well as for sports, so that our 10-12th  graders are now back to in-person classes.” He hopes that soon all girls will be able to again meet in person in the classroom and on the pitch.

Photos courtesy of Yuwa