In the village of Sakariya in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district, there was a long-running tradition of marrying off girls at a very young age. But now, one gets to witness something new – girls whizzing around with a soccer ball, practicing kicking and “juggling.”

Similar scenes have also become normal in nearby villages such as Meeno Ka Naya Gaon and Hasiyawas, where a not- for- profit initiative by the Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti (MJAS) is steadily replacing wedding veils with soccer balls. With support from Haq: Center for Child Rights, MJAS trains village girls to play soccer, and empowers them to fight for their future.

“Football is a team sport. Here girls are playing for [as individuals] but [also] as a team to target the common goal,” said Indira Pancholi, who with MJAS runs a campaign to end child marriage in Ajmer.

“I have never felt such freedom and happiness,” said Beena, 14, who traveled from Sakariya to play at a soccer camp in Meeno Ka Naya Gaon.

The sport has helped liberate many young girls at villages in Ajmer district, but their first hurdle wasn’t learning the sport – it was wearing shorts. “This is the first time ever in our life we have worn shorts,” said eighth-grade student Smita.

In villages like Sakariya and Meeno Ka Naya Gaon, women are mostly seen clad from head to toe. In Mankhand village, women aren’t even allowed to travel on motorbikes. It took some effort and counseling before elders in these villages allowed their girls to play soccer.

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Girls take a break during their friendly soccer match in the village of Meeno Ka Naya Gaon. The water was fetched by the girls themselves before the match. Photo: Rohit Jain

For Seema, 16, family came to the rescue, as her brother persuaded her parents to let her play, saying, “I will do chores when Seema goes to play.”

“Without MJAS’ support it wouldn’t have been possible for girls to play football,” said Sattu, 16, who visited many families in her village to persuade them to allow their girls to play soccer.

The work done by these organizations is important in light of ongoing efforts to eradicate child marriage, a tradition prevalent in many parts of rural, and even urban, India.

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‘Football gives us a way to express our freedom,’ 12-year-old Monica says. Photo: Rohit Jain

According to a 2017 UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) report, “India has the largest number of child brides in the world – one-third of the global total.”

Despite an overall decline in the prevalence of child marriages over the past decade, in a few districts of Rajasthan and Bihar they continue to be in the range of 47% to 51% of total marriages.

As these traditions continue, despite being outlawed decades ago, the work done by MJAS is a silver lining. As Haq’s director Enakshi Ganguly puts it: “What a joy it is to see girls shed their veils and don shorts and jerseys and run around with abandon kicking the ball.”