A lifelong educator, Vijay Barse’s life motto is driven by the thought - Every child has a right to play sport. He has been contributing to uplifting the lives of underprivileged children through sports for twenty years now with his organization, Slum Soccer, that coaches football to kids from low-income families and slums and sends them for competitions and tournaments across the world.
“It all began on a rainy day of July 2001,” he recalls how his football journey kickstarted with the slum children. The little enthusiastic players turned a broken plastic bucket into a football and were enjoying themselves. Realising how this could permanently keep them from falling into a dark pit, he started inviting them to play football every day in a neighbouring playground. “I observed that the love of sport influenced these children positively. So I started organising football tournaments especially meant for slum children,” shares the 75-year-old.
ScooNews conversed with Vijay Barse and his son, Abhijeet Barse, who is also the CEO of the organization, about the challenges, vision, and their undying efforts to bridge the gender gap by changing the social norms.
Vijay Barse, Founder, Slum Soccer
1. You technically never retired from your profession as you began coaching football to slum kids right after your retirement as a sports teacher. What keeps the educator in you going? What is your motto and motivation which empower you despite the challenges?
What keeps me going is the feeling of resonance with their problems and compassion for children, especially those underprivileged. I’m able to empathise because I had faced similar problems as them in my childhood. It was being involved in sports that positively impacted my life. And, I was and am sanguine that it will certainly bring about positive changes in their lives, too.
What motivates me is that, with their engagement on the field, they are miles away from all the undesirable and illegal activities. It keeps them away from the consumption of drugs or alcohol or indulgence in illegal activities like pickpocketing, petty crimes or violence. Apart from this, the kind of worldwide recognition and support our kids are getting through football tournaments, like the Homeless World Cup, motivates me to continue with greater determination. These competitions have helped the children make a transition from players to leaders, from unproductive to productive members of the community.
2. It must have not been easy convincing slum children’s parents when you started training them. Take us back to those days and talk about the efforts made by you to change their mind/perception regarding this sport.
On the contrary, it was rather easy for me to convince their parents because they wanted their children to stay away from negative influences like skipping school, gambling, smoking, and pick-pocketing. So, when I contacted them, they were happy to know their children will be directed to something productive. Also, because I have experienced such situations early in my life, I have had the advantage of being familiar with the psyche of parents of slum or underprivileged children. Of course, my stature and credibility as a sports teacher made it easier for me to approach these families.
3. Continuing with the previous question, your organization has been instrumental in promoting women football. Please elaborate on how this began, the problems faced so far, and about the positive change you've witnessed in their lives.
Besides the class divide, young girls and women growing up in India face additional challenges of gender bias. For example, most girls are expected to help at home and married off early. Even studies take a back seat for them, let alone sports. A lot of parents still believe that sports are designed for and dominated by boys and it corrupts the very duty of a woman. So, where parents and communities supported the participation of boys, they were apprehensive of girls’ participation.
I’ve noticed how participation in sports has proven to inculcate self-confidence and self-worth in girls. Thus, in the year 2008, we started encouraging girls’ participation in sports activities with our project ‘Shakti Girls.’ In the initial stages itself, we realised that it was no easy task. The project turned out to be a grand success and from its ranks emerged community youth leaders who became role models for the younger girls and brand ambassadors of the Shakti Girls Project. It offered a good and secure platform for young girls to express themselves freely as well as develop their personality through sports and education.
The project since then has been a catalyst in removing gender barriers. It has only been growing upwards with our girls regularly competing in the women's category at the Homeless World Cup. From the centres in underserved communities within the city of Nagpur to spreading across India, we have been reaching out and empowering a larger number of girls to overcome the challenges they face in a conservative, orthodox and male-dominated society. We prefer reaching them out through schools as communities often pull down the idea of girls’ participation.
4. Your hard work and vision will soon be seen on the big screen through the legendary actor Amitabh Bachchan. How does that feel?
I feel very honoured. The movie will help us reach out to a wider population of our country and hopefully across the world. It will serve its purpose when it’ll inspire the viewers, especially those who are underprivileged, to choose ambition over temptations for themselves.
Abhijeet Barse, CEO, Slum Soccer
1. You’ve now received national attention. Tell us about your selection process for the team? And, how do you reach out to the kids across India?
Over the years, we have been able to build a network of like-minded individuals, groups and organizations to reach out to our target participants. We also reach out to kids through our programs like Gamechangers, under which we select and train 100 youth leaders every year from across India. These leaders then reach out to children and youth in their own cities and states.
We currently have 24 men and 24 women teams from different states of India, who played at our National level tournament in Goa earlier this year.
2. You’ve mentioned that you are using football as a tool for social change. Talk about some of the success stories so far.
Our approach through Slum Soccer has always been to empower underprivileged kids through sports and education and provide them with a space to exercise and build on the knowledge. About 70% of our staff consists of people who were once a part of our programmes. They now work with us as coaches, youth leaders, mentors, program leads and program managers. We have players who have joined the police force, become sports teachers, and a few who have joined professional football clubs.
3. You’ve believed in the overall development of a child enrolled in your organization and hence, besides football, your team also focuses on their basic education. Please elaborate on this.
We believe that sports can be used as an effective tool not only to bring people together but also as a positive push towards development. Our projects such as ‘EduKick’ and ‘DeafKidz Goals!’ have been encouraging the children to learn while playing. We have also introduced topics such as life skills, health and hygiene in our educational programmes.
4. During the lockdown, your team addressed the problem of the sudden lack of menstrual hygiene kits for the underprivileged girls. How openly do you talk about menstruation to boys and girls in your academy in order to end the stigma around it?
We recognized that the lack of menstrual-hygiene knowledge was not just a women’s issue but a community issue at a very early stage. And so, we started with female participants breaking the silence around it and conducting open dialogues about menstruation. We then brought our male participants onboard followed by parents to discuss and learn about something as natural as menstruation and remove it from the “stigma” category.
Today, we have peer leaders who are our MHM warriors. We work with them to ensure girls in the community have easy access to information.
Get more information about Slum Soccer here:
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