Girls just want to have fun

Photo: WE United

Lhakpa Bhuti Lama has been into sports since she was four years old. She was part of India’s Tibetan Women Soccer Team, received her formal training in Dehradun and is qualified to participate in the Vancouver International Soccer Festival in Canada. 

When the WE United Project called for applications to its coach program in 2021, she immediately applied. She had been playing in WE United’s futsal tournaments for some years and now wanted to be a coach to help change people’s perception of girls and women in sports. 

“I want to empower girls from the Himalayan region through sports,” says Lhakpa. “And help them be good examples for future generations.”

Read more: Women of substance, Nepali Times

Lhakpa, who faced discrimination in the field from an early age, recalls that the school grounds were occupied mostly by senior male teams. And when she and her friends used the basketball court, the boys would run away instead of joining them. 

Even when she took her coaching initiative to a Tibetan school, eyebrows were raised. Teachers insisted that studies were of utmost priority, and sports was a distraction. They could not understand why she wanted to coach girls anyway, despite the interest from female students. 

“Even my own elder brother would discourage me from playing, saying it would affect my studies,” says Lhakpa. “But my academics only improved as I continued to participate in sports.”

Punam Regmi from Dhangadi has a similar story. A go-getter from birth, she held eclectic interests from academics to dancing. A student of environmental science, she had started her own menstrual awareness campaign when she came upon the WE Coach program on Facebook, she jumped at the opportunity. 

“I am new to football, I hadn’t really got the opportunity to learn about it until I joined the program,” she says, “Now I want the girls in my village to play, too. That is why I decided to become a coach.”

After the training, she reached out to schools to see if they would let her coach their female students but there was some resistance. They eventually gave in after learning that Regmi would coach for free.

“Most schools didn’t want to involve their female students in sports. They thought the girls would be unwilling to participate, but everyone came,” says Regmi, who wants to join the Nepal Army and maybe even become the Army Chief one day.

Only half the students were coached at first, but the initially skeptical teachers were soon in awe when they saw the girls play. 

There are fewer than five ANFA certified female coaches in Nepal. Even the Nepal women football team is led by a male coach. This is why the WE Coach Nepal program was launched in 2018. The program completed its third edition in 2021, training twelve young women from Dhangadi, Surkhet and Kathmandu to be football coaches.

WE United Project was started in 2014 by American expats Amanda Cats-Baril and Anne McGuinness to address the lack of playing grounds and women participation in sports in Kathmandu. This was back when there was only one futsal at the Godavari Alumni Association in Thamel, but that too was exclusively used by men. 

“Initially the project looked to foster a sports culture amongst women,” says the project's Arpana Pradhan. “Now the focus is also on building leadership and skills development. We want to change the way women view themselves and other women.”

Read more: Nepal’s female guides prepare for trekking season, Sonam Choekyi Lama 

The project began as a weekly friendly futsal session every Saturday, welcoming players from all levels of skill and backgrounds. Only a few women participated at first. On top of the stigma attached to women in sports, even an hour of futsal meant restructuring one’s family and home priorities. There were babies to take care of, in-laws to look after, children to bathe and clothe, and guests to serve. 

But gradually, the number picked up. In 2017, WE United organised the first annual futsal league for women, the Mahila Premier League. However, while everyone involved (referees and players, organisers) the coach was still male. 

Enter the WE Coach program. The objective was not just to train coaches, but also fostering an environment where transformative change-makers can thrive. The girls are taught about gender equality and equity, women empowerment, and creating safe spaces. 

Lhakpa recounts the annual Lhosar football tournament in her village where, originally, only male football teams were allowed to play. When Lhakpa took the issue up with the organisers, they finally allowed her and the girls to form two teams after much demurral. 

“It started with two teams,” she adds. “But every year the number only grows, and more girls participate.”

Lhakpa feels proud to see the girls passionate about playing sports. “Their attitude towards the game has changed,” she says. “And they have learnt to prioritise enjoying and learning over the outcome.”

Punam says perceptions are changing and her father has learnt to cook and no longer asks her to stay back to take care of the chores when she goes out to play. 

Program director at WE United, Silika Shakya, adds: “If my daughter grows up seeing me play, she will learn that she can too. A woman playing sports should not be something out of the ordinary, it should happen in every household.”

Arpana Pradhan says, “We are not competing with men, but with ourselves. If they have the right to play, why not us? We are also playing to have fun. Women playing and coaching creates positive role models across many careers. All women can be leaders, sports is just a tool.”

Read  also: Celebrating  the  Himalayan Outdoors, Sikuma Rai 

Aria Shree Parasai