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Shreeja India – dribbling past patriarchy

Shreeja India - Empowering the rural girls of West Bengal through Football!
Shreeja India – Empowering the rural girls of West Bengal through Football! Photo credit: Shreeja India

What if you had a chance encounter with an Indian monk that would change your perception about life and transform you into a social entrepreneur?

This is what exactly happened way back in 1984, when Dr. Shib Shankar Dasgupta, Executive Director, Shreeja India met a monk inside a tea stall in Kolkata.

During the conversation, the monk shared with him some pearls of wisdom, which he believed could bring about a constructive change in society:

Make sure that nobody dies of hunger

Make sure that nobody dies without proper medical care

Make sure that no child grows up without education

…and this is how the ideology of Shreeja India was conceptualized.

Dr. Shibshankar Dasgupta, Executive Director, Shreeja India
Dr. Shibshankar Dasgupta, Executive Director, Shreeja India

The Lifestyle Portal in conversation with Founders, Dr. Shib Shankar Dasgupta, Executive Director and Country Head, Hari Dasgupta,

Shreeja India. We’re so glad and honored to share their journey of transforming lives of tribal girls in Bengal for a better tomorrow.

Shib Shankar Dasgupta has a Ph.D. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York, USA. He is a New York-based social entrepreneur specializing in alleviating poverty through technology. He has worked as a Consultant with various international NGOs, including ‘Save the Children, USA’. As the Founder and Executive Director of Shreeja India, he is currently engaged in empowering young tribal girls through sports-based education in India.

Hari Dasgupta, Country Head, Shreeja India
Hari Dasgupta, Country Head, Shreeja India

Hari Dasgupta is a Chartered Accountant and retired from Procter and Gamble as the Head of Accounts after a stint of 25 years with the company. Besides drawing up the India Accounts, he was associated with the various business teams by way of analysis and controls. Systems Implementations and MIS were the other core areas of his expertise.

When did it all begin?

Dr. Dasgupta, motivated by the words of the monk, from then on, tried various social projects to fulfill those words which remained with him since 1984. Finally, Shreeja India was registered on February 3, 2017, based on these three ideas, as shared by the monk. Shreeja India aspires to empower every woman, make her self-reliant through education, sports, and life skills. The organization believes that uplifting and educating women is the only and best way to elevate an entire community.

We had a chance to meet Hari Dasgupta at The Lifestyle Portal’s 2nd Entrepreneurs’ Meetup in Pune that brought to light 20 budding entrepreneurs from varied fields. This is where we learned about Shreeja India, a unique not-for-profit organization that is working to empower and educate the tribal girls of West Bengal through football. Yes, football. Football is not just about FIFA and other Champions League; it is also a powerful tool in bringing about social reforms in a country by empowering our women. And The Lifestyle Portal is here to tell you all about it.

Gearing up for a better tomorrow. Photo credit: Shreeja India
Gearing up for a better tomorrow. Photo credit: Shreeja India

Initial investments made

“Initially we, the two brothers put in Rs. 2 lacs. In the first year (2017-18), we got Rs. 6.50 lacs as donations from friends and acquaintances. In the second year (2018-19), our collections were 7.36 lacs from friends and 7 lacs from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes Development & Finance Corporation, Govt. of West Bengal,” shares Hari Dasgupta.

Challenges faced

Dr. Shib Dasgupta shares, “Our main challenge in this initiative is to maintain the regular attendance of the girls in our academic and sports classes. All the beneficiary girls are from first-generation learning families. They are slow to realize the value of education in their lives. As a result, we visit their homes and talk to their parents regularly. Our teachers/mentors have to spend a lot of time and energy convincing the parents to allow the girls to attend our classes regularly. Roughly, we have observed that 20% of girls have over 80% attendance; 50% of girls have 60% to 79% attendance and 30% of girls have less than 60% attendance.”

Social change begins. Photo credit: Shreeja India
Social change begins. Photo credit: Shreeja India

What makes Shreeja India unique?

Shreeja India is aspiring to uplift young girls and women belonging to marginalized and challenged populations and empower them by using football as a tool for overall development.

“The out-of-the-box endeavor undertaken is relatively new in India. The current project by Shreeja India in Birbhum is an innovative and integrated model that conducts special football coaching, out-of-school educational classes, mental health workshops and related activities to foster the overall development of the young beneficiaries of age group (8 -18 years). The endeavor strives to stop school dropout, mainstream first-generation learning girls, end early marriage, prevent human trafficking and impede violence against women,” adds Hari Dasgupta.

This is what confidence looks like. From the Damini program. Photo credit: Shreeja India
This is what confidence looks like. From the Damini program. Photo credit: Shreeja India

Football used as a tool for Social Change

Football is social. Shreeja India’s Football for Development program transcends the field and influences the girls to perform and live better. This approach particularly sets apart Shreeja India from other organizations working in the same thematic areas.

Here are five instances where Shreeja India football coaching helps in enhancing their quality of lives:

  1. Confidence Building: Tribal girls lack confidence in life. Through their Football for Development program, Shreeja India aspires to make the girls confident in life. Intense practice on the field makes distinct contributions in building their confidence in life as they mature.
  2. Controlling the Territory: During their Football strategy class, the girls are taught to control individual territories to stop the opponent to pass through. Winning on the field is often translated to the real-life overcoming of daily struggles.
  3. Awareness of Surroundings: In their skills development class, the girls tend to practice with their heads down. We teach them to continually look up and see the changing positions of their teammates. The idea is to make their passes accurate. This awareness of continually renewed positions of accomplices helps them to judge their own positions in adverse situations envisaged in real life.
  4. Cooperative living: Football is a team game. Shreeja India encourages constant sharing of glory and fame with teammates that help their girls to adopt a life based on “Sharing and Caring” with friends in real life.
  5. Off-the-Ball Strategy: In a 90-minute Football match, any girl touches the ball for a few minutes only. The rest of the time, she runs around to find unguarded positions on the field. This ‘Off-The-Ball’ tactic helps them to look for opportune moments to achieve goals in life collectively.

Another factor that sets Shreeja India apart is its simultaneous focus on Research and Development. A separate research cell of the organization is constantly reviewing, mapping and documenting the progress of the program to assure not only its proper implementation but also its further development. The cell identifies social needs, designs initiatives and continuously monitors their impacts.

Engage | Educate | Empower. Photo credit: Shreeja India
Engage | Educate | Empower. Photo credit: Shreeja India

How football empowers girls

The team of Shreeja India explains, “Football is one of the most popular games in the world. The sheer simplicity of football is what makes it so beautiful and popular. It is very easy to involve someone to play or watch football, hence engaging community becomes easier. All you need is a ball, little space, and something to demarcate the goals and bounds.”

Moreover, it suits the affordability of the target group and the rules are simple. Children anywhere in the world can handle this and hence poverty is no obstacle.

Football, as a sport, also promotes fitness, teamwork and strategizing. It teaches goal setting, perseverance, discipline, time management, handling of success and failure and life skills. Hence, football was a natural choice as a sport to undertake the given endeavor.

“Also, the tribal community we are working with is largely an illiterate populace with the young girls all being first-generation learners (FGLs). They often lag in schools because their parents can hardly help them academically. Parents of FGLs work hard to keep their children in schools, even at the cost of additional debts and hardships. They often find the school environment completely unfriendly to them and this creates a big hurdle for them to build the right network with teachers and other parents. Ultimately, a vacuum is created around the FGLs, which disturbs the smooth functioning of their growth and development and increases the incidence of school dropouts among them. In the given situation and among the populace as mentioned above, it is the girls who suffer more due to the societal constraints putting limitations on them and owing to their vulnerable conditions. While they still do not understand the importance of education, the community is quite inclined towards sport (Football) in general,” Dr. Shib Dasgupta.

Keeping the points in mind, Shreeja India realized that the best way to foster overall development and empower girls belonging to marginalized or special populations would be through Football and this would also help to engage their parents into their developmental process.

The integrated model ‘Beyond Football’ is, however, much more than football training. The program includes specialized intense football coaching, out-of-school educational classes (including mainstream school curriculum, general knowledge, social awareness classes, computers for the seniors and life skill classes), and mental health workshops in an entwined manner.

The progress map through Football

Hari Dasgupta further adds, “We have mapped the progress of the girls who are enrolled under the ‘Beyond Football’ Program over six months since their inception into this endeavor. The report is shared below:

The progress map through Football. Data courtesy: Shreeja India
The progress map through Football. Data courtesy: Shreeja India

An interesting observation has shown that the girls who are doing well on the field are the same ones who are excelling academically as well. There has been a noticeable improvement in their self- esteem, confidence, fitness, communications and motivation to reach short term goals by setting them on their own.

Projects running at Shreeja India

Embracing victory over adversaries. Photo credit: Shreeja India
Embracing victory over adversaries. Photo credit: Shreeja India

Beyond Football

Shreeja India’s journey commenced with a group of tribal girls in the villages under Rajnagar Block in Birbhum. The tribal community is deprived of access to nutrition, education, health and skills development opportunities. Shreeja India introduced its research-based football for development program in this locality. Being ‘First Generation Learners’ (FGLs) these girls often lag in schools because their parents cannot help them academically and often find the school environment unfriendly. This adversely affects their growth. Shreeja India imparts football coaching as well as out-of-school education to ascertain their holistic physical and mental development. Further, this endeavor helps to build social capital and equip the girls to fight social evils, including early marriages, trafficking and violence much prevalent in the community.

Nutrition Gardening. Photo credit: Shreeja India
Nutrition Gardening. Photo credit: Shreeja India

Nutrition Gardening

There is a significant gap in the healthy and nutritious food intake of the tribal community residing in the remote villages of Birbhum. Their diet generally consists of edible leaves and rice or rice starch as they cannot afford nutritious fruits and vegetables from the market. To counter this problem, Shreeja India has started facilitating nutrition gardening in each of the households, utilizing their home backyard. The initiative is showing encouraging results. Few vegetables grown include Pumpkin, Tomato, Spinach, Bottle Gourd, Bitter Gourd, Lady Finger, Malabar Spinach, Bush Beans, and eggplant.

Project Damini. Photo credit: Shreeja India
Project Damini. Photo credit: Shreeja India

Project Damini

“‘DAMINI’ has been a partnership between Shreeja India & Kolkata Police to initiate ‘Shreeja Football Plus’ program to train young girls from NABADISHA project in Kolkata. In addition to football training sessions, Shreeja India’s FIFA approved coaches and mentors managed regular motivational talks, psychological training and after-practice refreshments. After a significant journey together when the initiative gained momentum and stability, Shreeja India handed over the program to Kolkata Police. Damini helped empower more than 150 street girls in Kolkata,” add team Shreeja India.

Smiles unlimited. Photo credit: Shreeja India
Smiles unlimited. Photo credit: Shreeja India

Research and Development Cell

The organization has a separate research cell that conducts various research studies on educating first-generation learning girls at the base of the pyramid. The investigations are currently focusing on advancing their cognitive performance, improve their physical, mental and personality development.

Future plans with Shreeja India

  1. Working with the tribal population in all districts of West Bengal and across India, replicating the ‘Beyond Football’ program
  2. Working with special groups of young women (deaf and mute, socio-economically deprived) and replicating the ‘Beyond Football’ program
  3. A residential academy for Shreeja girls in each intervening remote location with special science laboratories, advanced digital education system and vocational Training cum production centers
  4. Health Clinics in intervening remote locations deprived of health care
  5. Special Programs on nutrition gardening with beneficiary population
  6. Safe drinking water facilities for underprivileged communities residing in water-scarce areas
  7. Alternative climate-smart agriculture program for the deprived rural communities
  8. Advancing entrepreneurship of the women from remote rural areas
  9. Planning and execution of new endeavors based on the studies and social needs identified by Shreeja India’s research and development cell
The journey has just begun. Photo credit: Shreeja Indiia
The journey has just begun. Photo credit: Shreeja India

Volunteering for Shreeja India

Dr. Shib Dasgupta signs off by saying, “Shreeja India prefers to have active participation from various people from different walks of life. For example, many teachers have volunteered to organize special classes for the girls in Birbhum; former footballers have agreed to visit our football coaching. We are developing a new process through exchange programs between city-based and rural-based schools as well.”

I am sure, after reading the Shreeja India story, we’re going to be motivated to do our bit in terms of volunteering and contributions. And who knows, soon there could be a film made on the work being done by the Shreeja India team, as this is a unique story that needs to be shared with the world.

Signing off with the words of Dr. Shib Dasgupta – Executive Director, Shreeja India – “Life is like a football match; you don’t get to dribble past a defender and score a goal every few minutes. At Shreeja India, we teach our girls the physical and emotional resiliency to last a 90-minute game and to apply that same mentality to every challenge they face in real life.”

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Tanya is a graduate in Sociology from Sophia College, Mumbai, a post-graduate in Communications and Media from SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai and holds a Master's Degree in Journalis & Mass Communications from Chandigarh University. A former writing mentor and a seasoned lifestyle writer, Tanya writes columns on The Lifestyle Portal of life and living.

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