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London, August 24, 2012
India’s Dharavi slum, located in Mumbai, is one of the largest in Asia. Over one million people live within a 1.7km square area.
You will find no houses here, no brick and mortar walls, just shacks; made by hand and held together by tarpaulin and tin.
Poor sanitation is a constant threat to the people here with almost 1,500 people sharing a single toilet.
One of Dharvari’s inhabitants is Gulafsha; she lives here with her parents.
But at just 17 years of age, and despite these conditions, Gulafsha has achieved remarkable things.
The family’s journey to Dharavi is a touching one. Gulafsha’s parents both grew up with little access to education. And in order to secure the opportunities they never had for their children, they uprooted their entire lives to move to the bustling commercial capital.
Access to facilities, however, is not the only barrier to education or other development opportunities for young people in India, particularly young women.
Cultural norms and social traditions limiting what young women can do often prove even harder to traverse than poverty itself.
Like so many of the country’s young women, both Gulafsha’s sisters were married by the age of 15. On reaching puberty, young women in India are expected to stay at home, unable to make choices about their own futures. Gulafsha also faced the prospect of not being allowed to take part in what she loves most in life: football.
Talking about the situation in her home country, she says: “If you are a girl, parents often won’t let you out of your house to play.”
It was however, a Laureus-supported football project that helped not only give Gulafsha access to football and play, but also a path in life not bound by the often rigid traditions of her society.
Magic Bus, a strategic partner of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, works to combat gender inequality, as well as giving children living in poverty vital opportunities whilst promoting education, health and livelihood. Since joining the Laureus family, Academy Members such as Michael Johnson and Ian Botham have visited Magic Bus to see the great work taking place.
But Gulafsha’s first experience of the project was hearing about her brother’s participation as a youth mentor. It turned out to be a turning point for Gulafsha; she was 10 years old at the time.
Whilst at Magic Bus, her brother witnessed young women and young men playing football together. It made him think about his younger sister, Gulafsha, and what she might be able to achieve on her own, as opposed to following in her sisters’ footsteps toward marriage at a young age.
As Gulafsha puts it: “[My brother] had seen other girls play football, so he thought ‘why not my sister?’”
He made a plea to his parents to let Gulafsha get involved as well. And his doing so has proved life-changing for the young football-lover, particularly as she was approaching the age at which marriage may have followed.
“I would be next [to marry at 16 like her sisters] but because of all I have done now my mother says ‘let her go and do all that she can do.’
“[People in Dharavi] have no leaders, no role models and they fall into bad habits. But [Magic Bus] has raised my confidence levels, it has turned me towards ‘good’ habits, not bad. If it hadn’t been for Magic Bus, I wonder whether I might [be asking myself] ‘Hey, at this age, should I actually get married?’ But, no. Because of Magic Bus, instead I’m here talking to you.”
And she is here, talking to Laureus in London, having been rewarded not just for her efforts at Magic Bus, but for her own work setting up football classes on a Sunday morning for other young women, aged eight up to their mid-twenties, in Mumbai.
“I am taking what I learn at Magic Bus, working toward gender equality, building confidence,” she says. “This building confidence of women [encourages them to] go for education and a better future. Sport is the medium, and through it we can teach many things.
“And if I teach 25 girls, each of them can teach another 25 and so on. Before it was really like girls couldn’t take part in any outside activities, but now the world is changing.”
But what do the older students of hers think of taking lessons from a 17-year-old?
“It’s like they’re sisters,” she says. “For the younger ones I’m a big sister, for the older ones, a little sister.
“It’s like a family.”