Our Indian photographer Sushanti Kumari is 16 years old and has been playing football since 2013. She is part of the Yuwa programme in Jharkhand, the Indian state with the highest rates of female illiteracy, child marriage, and human trafficking. Yuwa, which means "youth" in Hindi, works specifically with girls from impoverished families in rural Jharkhand, using village-based football teams (led by the participants themselves) and education to build character, confidence, and courage.
Sushanti joined Yuwa with several of her friends; initially facing a lot of resistance from people in her village who thought it was inappropriate for girls to wear athletic shorts. Sushanti's family are subsistence farmers, and her father died of a chronic illness two years ago. Sushanti was selected for a Yuwa team that competed in the Donosti Cup in Spain in 2016. Both on and off the field, she has been a critical member of her Yuwa team, the Rockstars, since its formation in 2013. She is currently training to become a Yuwa coach.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your football life?
I go to Yuwa School and am in 10th grade, and also play football. I am the youngest daughter in my family. I like photography – I like to take photos of nature and my friends because that is how sometimes I express my happiness. I feel very close to nature when I take photos.
I play football in the evenings at 3:45pm from Tuesday to Friday. On Mondays I go for coaching. My football practice on Sunday is early in the morning, so I catch the bus at Irba (5 minutes from my house) and then I start playing football by 5:50am. The ground where I practice with my team is in Hesatu, which is 2-3 kilometers away from my house. So on Sundays I take the Yuwa bus and return to the Yuwa House at 8:45am, and then I have a coaches’ meeting, because I am planning to coach and earn money to pay my own school fees and be independent.
Who is in the photos? Where were the photos taken?
These are my teammates and other people who I know. The little boy with the ball is my brother’s son. I go to play football in Hesatu village, so most of the photos were taken on the Hesatu football ground or near my home. My brother works as a farmer and also as a daily wage labourer. His son is 3 years old. Most of the villagers work on making handicrafts and also as daily wage labourers. They cut clothes, stitch, and make designs on them so that they can be sold in the cities.
What did you try to show with the photos? Was there any wider meaning with the photos?
One photo is of my friend Sita with the ball on her head. She was trying to control the ball on her head. I wanted to show how girls are getting good at football. I wanted to show that the girls’ look really professional and most importantly, cool, while playing. Sita is usually very shy to do something but when she has to do it, she will. Just like me. She has the talent but she's shy to show it.
Are there any good stories connected with the people or teams you photographed?
The team that I play with, the “Rockstars”, was formed in 2013. It's been 6 years I've been playing with them. The players come from different villages. I think we're quite a special team. We argue a lot but we're also very good friends. We like putting on talent shows. Once we performed a dance routine and it was very good.
Our team has played on many different fields. We have had to keep shifting the places where we play because the farmers would get jealous and start to plough their fields so as to not allow us to play there. We've never had a permanent place to play. Nowadays we play in Hesatu. Although that is still not a permanent place, we make do with what we can.
We have lots of practices with the coaches but very soon, this year in fact; we will all become coaches and start to earn our own money. This will help us to stand on our own two feet. We will be able to pay for our own education and this is very important because most of the people in our village don't support education for the girls.
There was a team called "Superstars" and they were playing before us because they are senior to us. A lot of them say that they are jealous of our team because we have such great chemistry.
One of the special stories that I remember is that once we decided to stop a child marriage in our community. We used to come from different villages to meet and talk about this issue. Unfortunately we weren't able to stop the marriage but we tried.
What role does football play in India and Indian society?
Football is not the main sport in India - that is cricket. But football is the second choice and many people play football. There is a national Indian football team and I once met the captain.
What are the opportunities for female footballers in India?
I think that playing football could be a good career opportunity, because if more women start playing then they will start receiving more support. If more states in India start encouraging women to play football, then I believe that unity between women will increase. And so will equality between men and women.
There will be more unity because more women will see that there are more like them and this will create better bonds between the women. And equality will also start to become prominent because when more women start playing football, it will also bring about the awareness that women too can play. This will change people's perspectives and slowly bring equality. Parents will also start supporting their daughters in playing football.
What does football mean to you?
Football is my luck, which has brought me to here. Football is not only a sport - it is not so limited. Football is a world and because of it I can see more.
How has YUWA impacted your life?
Since I started football through Yuwa, my life has changed in a good way. Through football I was able to join Yuwa School and go to other places in the world. I see football as my goal for my future. If I had not joined Yuwa, I would be living a simple life like others.
What is the future for Indian women's football?
I think the future for Indian women’s football is quite bright. It looks very promising. In the past there were hardly any women's football teams. But nowadays there are many. And there are new teams always being formed. So I think it's getting more and more popular and there will be a bright future.