By Anu Acharya
If there is one phrase that perfectly describes India’s performance at the 2016 Olympics, it’s: ‘Women Power’. Be it PV Sindhu smashing off competition, Sakshi Malik beating opponents to a pulp, Dipa Karmakar vaulting to glory, Aditi Ashok teeing off to victory; Indian sportswomen have proved that they are as good as, if not better, than their global counterparts. While their finesse and expertise in sport are beyond comparison, what makes these young ladies stand apart is their passion, grit, and determination. They herald the new generation of sportswomen in India.
This new generation’s performance is backed by years of training. They sacrificed many pleasures and opportunities in life to reach where they are. Their DNA has given them an added advantage in terms of sports performance and other traits such as resilience, resistance to injury. But other significant factors such as their nurturing environment, training, diet, and opportunities, have a big role to play in determining where they are today.
Their parents and coaches have not only taught them to play and win but also made innumerable sacrifices to ensure they stay focused. It is truly heartening to see these numbers slowly inching up and to read their stories. Nothing, not even their own bodies or mindset, can sway them from attaining their goals. So what is truly stopping them?
Women constitute 586 million of India’s 1.3 billion population. Of these, 81.4% have attended primary school and 48.7% secondary school (according to UNICEF). Let’s not even talk about higher education here. How many of them are educated in sports?
Our sons are encouraged to go for cricket coaching but are our daughters receiving the same opportunities? Maybe yes, among families with upper middle class, military, or academic background. But very few are encouraged towards competitive sports. For a vast majority, the time for sports education is PT periods in their schools. Some of the jokes circulating say it all – “we want our sons/daughters to win gold medals, but ultimately want them to become doctors or engineers”, or “we can’t expect sports victories until other teachers stop borrowing PT periods”.
When our school education system fails to identify and nourish sports talent, we owe all our sports victories to some parents who decide to something extra for their children and encourage active participation in sports.
Then there are pillars of the conservative society, who impose restrictions on girls’ participation in sports. When girls are encouraged to participate and win against boys, they become more confident and lose social vulnerability. We don’t want that, do we? Encouraging sports also means improving their lifelong fitness and lifestyle.
But no, post-menarche “we treasure our girls”, and hence the restrictions in clothing and movement. There is an inherent case of double standards in the name of pain threshold. The fairer sex is labelled as physically vulnerable and “delicate” time and again until it is time to bear and rear children.
Time for Change
While it is easy to blame our government and say that there isn’t much investment in sports education for girls, we forget that this is about a whole mindset. When women can bear children, manage homes and earn money, they should be allowed to explore their potential to the max. If sports is their forte, let no one stop them from excellence. Neither the public mindset nor the government infrastructure. Now is a good time for those in charge of education to improve our curriculum:
- Encourage physical education and sports development at the school level to give playing opportunities to all. The benefits include a fitter next generation and more confident women.
- Identify and offer special opportunities to exceptional kids. Use genetic and psychometric tests to identify winners. Partner with local school teachers to find the best talent young. Offer incentives and education opportunities. There are some NGOs and even government doing some work here, but we need more.
- Offer education and medical checkups to our champions. Money, job and gifts of housing are all good, but what are we doing to ensure that optimum and long-term performance from our talent? Are they aware of other health issues that could possibly affect them? What are the steps we are taking to mitigate health risks without hindering their sports career?
Give her cooking utensils and a typical Indian woman can give you the most delicious meal in no time. Give her an opportunity to earn money and she can be an equal contributor to the household income. Give her quality education and she can become the best innovator and educator. Assess her skills and interests early and train her in sports and she can do the nation proud.
It is time to think afresh and decide what we want to give our daughters – a ladle, a pencil, or a racquet.
Anu Acharya is founder and CEO of Mapmygenome, India’s pioneering personal genomics company.
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