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Sports initiative in Bangladesh breaks down barriers to female participation

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2010/Siddique
Bappi Dey, 12, steps up to bat as she and her teammates practice their cricket skills in a flat field on the outskirts of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

By Naimul Haq and Jessie Mawson

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh, 6 October 2010 – Outside her modest family home, made of bamboo and clay, Bappi Dey, 12, practices batting in preparation for a friendly cricket match in her neighbourhood, Hindupara. As an opener, her teammates always depend on her for good score.

Bappi and eight other girls from Hindupara walk about half a kilometre twice a week to practice throwing and catching, running between the wickets, bowling, batting and wicket-keeping. All the team members are from poor families. Their parents mostly depend on fishing, farming or small businesses to earn a living.

Although there are no proper sports grounds in their community, the girls have managed to find one flat field amid the rough, sloping terrain of Cox’s Bazar, and that’s where they play.

Challenging traditions

Located on the world’s longest sand beach, Cox’s Bazar is situated some 430 km south-east of the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka. Here, UNICEF Bangladesh and its non-governmental partner BRAC – a development organization dedicated to alleviating poverty by empowering the poor – formed an all-female sports team last year that is the first of its kind in Bangladesh. And Bappi is the team captain.

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2010/Siddique
In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, local religious leader Moulana Noor Mohammad says he has changed his mind and now believes that girls should have the right to participate in outdoor sports.

The team is part of the International Inspiration project, a joint initiative by UK Sports, the British Council and UNICEF that aims to enrich the lives of 12 million children in 20 countries through the power of sport and play.

The formation of the girls’ team in Cox’s Bazar is significant, and has proved challenging, because most people in this region are socially conservative and live according to strict religious customs. Typically, adolescent girls are expected to adhere to ‘purdah,’ a religious practice whereby women cover their bodies in public and generally avoid being seen by men who are not directly related to them.

“It was an impossible mission at the beginning,” recalls the BRAC Area Coordinator for the Empowerment of Adolescents project, Ayuba Husna, who adds: “The idea of girls playing sport in public was readily rejected, especially by religious leaders who were initially opposed to such social change.”

Community support

BRAC runs monthly mothers’ forums in Cox’s Bazar, along with open community meetings, and BRAC officers used these gatherings to generate discussion about the prospect of developing a girls’ sports team. Despite some heated debates, the ice eventually melted and the majority of parents, religious, and community leaders agreed that girls, too, need to be engaged in outdoor sports activities to aid their physical and mental development.

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2010/Siddique
Bappi Dey (top right) and her teammates dream of playing women’s cricket for Bangladesh one day.

“It was not smooth sailing,” says Ms. Husna. “We faced many obstacles and a lot of opposition but, in the end, the hardest part was selecting the final team members. We had so many enthusiastic girls interested in joining the cricket team, but due to the age limit and other factors, we were forced to turn many down.”

A national cricket coach eventually selected the team members from 15 different ‘Kishori Clubs’ for adolescents that are run by BRAC and supported by UNICEF. Of the 1,500 applicants, only 18 girls made the final cut. The team participated in an intense 12-day training session and then spent a further six days training at the district stadium. The girls’ skills have improved rapidly.

“It is amazing,” coach Farazi Nurul Alam says of the project. “I am particularly amazed to see the psychological strength in the girls. While they may not be up to international standards just yet, they have the determination needed to rise to the top.”

‘Why not us?’

“My teammates and I dream of playing women’s cricket for Bangladesh one day,” says Bappi.

One of those teammates, Mita Dey, agrees. “Look at our national cricket team. Most of those players were our age when they were selected. If they can rise to be heroes, why not us?” she asks.

“Usually, boys are thought to be superior,” says another player, Shumi Akter, who comes from a remote village in the Pahartoli hills. “In school and in the neighbourhood, it is boys who make up the sports teams, not girls. Now we can finally demonstrate our strengths.”

Team member Nasima Akhter adds: “Prior to joining the team, I frequently suffered weaknesses. But physically I feel much better now I am playing and sweating regularly.”

A new identity through sport

These days in Cox’s Bazar, it is common to see the girls in their red-and-green jerseys practicing in public. In fact, local people often gather to watch them play limited-over matches. Such acceptance has been possible only as a result of sustained commitment on the part of girls involved.

“Sport has given me a new identity in my community,” says wicketkeeper Sumaiya Nasrin, daughter of a rickshaw puller and the youngest member of the team. “People respect me. I feel like I have a voice now.”

UNICEF is now working to expand this project and form female sports teams in other parts of the country. It is hoped that girls will be given the chance to play not just cricket, but football, hockey and basketball as part of this initiative.



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