Football: Empowering women and preserving a culture

Read the interview with Sport and Development.

“When the first 27 girls walked onto the pitch in 2012, their bodies were hunched in insecurity… After our first camp, the girls laughed and shouted as they played, and weren’t afraid to call themselves footballers.” sportanddev speaks to Cassie Childers, founder of Tibet Women’s Soccer.

Since 1959, around 150,000 have left Tibet for neighbouring India, Nepal and Bhutan. Started in 2012, Tibet Women’s Soccer has brought football to female members of northern India’s diaspora community, and the initiative has quickly grown in strength and popularity.

sportanddev:
 What needs or issues does Tibet Women’s Soccer address?

Cassie Childers: TWS focuses on two primary needs – asserting Tibet’s call for recognition as a nation and culture and empowering women on the local level. Traditionally, Tibetan women haven’t had much opportunity to express themselves in their communities or internationally. TWS provides an arena to interact recreationally, learn communication and empowerment and expressing them in a safe environment.

Tibet is under occupation. Of 6 million Tibetans, only the 150,000 in exile can wear their flag. Of those 150,000, only 16 young women have the privilege of wearing it on their jersey. It means more than football. It’s political, a way for women to assert their rights and stand up for the 3 million Tibetan women who don’t have that chance.

sportanddev: Where is the initiative at now?

CC: After just 15 months, TWS has established 13 young women’s teams, plus 13 under-10 teams based in Tibetan schools around India. Selected from the club teams, our premier squad has competed in three friendly matches against Indian teams. Within 2-3 years, they’re set to morph into Tibet’s first women’s national team (of any sport).

More matches, some against the best in India, are planned for 2013, and we’ll kick off 2014 with a special training camp coached by New Zealand’s Shane Kidby. Our camps are holistic – in addition to football, players engage in empowerment training, including communication, health, gender studies, leadership and teambuilding. We started with 27 girls who had never played and now we’re reaching more than 650.

sportanddev: What is the impact on the players involved and the diaspora community in northern India?

CC: When the first 27 girls walked onto the pitch in 2012, their bodies were hunched in insecurity. Boys, even grown men, laughed at the notion of girls playing. After our first camp, the girls laughed and shouted as they played, and weren’t afraid to call themselves footballers.

Just four months later, our first match was played in front of 5000 Tibetans, many of whom thought they were in for a good laugh. After our captain, Lhamo Kyi, scored and proceeded to cartwheel and flip in celebration, no one laughed again.

We receive emails from older women thanking us for giving this opportunity, which they never had, to the new generation. What started as a ‘cute joke’ has evolved into the pride of a culture. People are now waiting in excitement for the day Tibet’s first women’s national team competes in their first international match, a day which will change history.

sportanddev: What does the future hold for Tibet Women’s Soccer?

CC: Our goal is to extend the opportunity to play to all Tibetan women in exile, starting from age five. Meanwhile we’ll continue to develop the national programme until we’ve got a team that’s ready to compete, first against India’s national team and then the best in Asia.

I won’t give up until team Tibet marches into the Olympic and World Cup stadiums. It may be a long haul, but someday we’ll be there. If what we’ve already accomplished is any testament to what’s to come, it may not take as long as some critics think.

The important thing is that Tibetan women continue to feel represented at home and worldwide, and are given the tools to empower themselves and communicate with each other and the world.