The Art and Science of Fitness | In Mewat, an initiative to empower young girls - Hindustan Times
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The Art and Science of Fitness | In Mewat, an initiative to empower young girls

Feb 18, 2023 07:31 PM IST

SwaTaleem Foundation, which serves rural adolescent girls from marginalised communities in Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas, had an annual meet which saw girls run several races and learn to use running as a tool for empowerment.

What people get wrong about being fit is that it’s not only limited to winning. It is about becoming your best, one step at a time, one day at a time. The journey of physical fitness and sports helps build a solid foundation, making you more confident with time. This is why it was interesting to see girls as young as 12 attempt to run 1,600 metres (m) in the heat yesterday in Mewat, Haryana, despite their lack of experience running this distance.

At the annual fest of 5 KGBVs. (Photo credit: FilmArT) PREMIUM
At the annual fest of 5 KGBVs. (Photo credit: FilmArT)

It's often said, “Behind every successful man is a woman.” As much as I believe it is true, that statement is extremely patronising. It almost sounds like the only purpose and duty of women’s existence is to do whatever it takes, and make all kinds of sacrifices, just to make men successful. So then, what about women themselves? In pursuit of a better society, we need to focus a lot more on them.

The Mewat story

Everyone is familiar with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and what he has done, but almost no one recognises the woman behind Bapu. To honour her, a chain of 3,609 residential girls’ secondary schools (in 27 states/UTs) is named after her — Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV). These schools are run by the Government of India, specifically built in educationally backward blocks of the country, of which 36 KGBVs are in Haryana for girls hailing from marginalised socio-economic backgrounds. Most of these students are first-generation learners.

It excited me when I learnt that two of my students from Ashoka University, where I was director of sports, founded a non-governmental organisation (NGO) to help girl students at KGBVs in Haryana. Ananya Tiwari and Vaibhav Kumar set up the SwaTaleem Foundation to increase decision-making and foundational skills in underrepresented adolescent girls by enabling a supportive ecosystem of teachers, school officials and parents.

The real magic is getting these girls and many others like them to start running when everyone has told them they can’t. (Photo credit: FilmArT)
The real magic is getting these girls and many others like them to start running when everyone has told them they can’t. (Photo credit: FilmArT)

Ananya narrated how they got started with SwaTaleem. “SwaTaleem Foundation was founded in 2018 by me and Vaibhav Kumar to serve rural adolescent girls from marginalised communities through KGBVs. We both have been alums of some premier institutes of India (I am from St Stephens and Young India Fellowship in Ashoka University and Vaibhav is from IIT Kanpur and Young India Fellowship). We started our work in Mewat, the only aspirational district in Haryana. Now, SwaTaleem is working with all KGBVs in Haryana serving 4,500 girls and their families.” What prompted them to start this work was Ananya’s experience with KGBVs in Bihar and Vaibhav’s will to serve underrepresented parts of the country. They have been serving in the development space for over a decade now.

So where does running or fitness come in?

Swami Vivekanand posed an interesting question that we together are attempting to address: “How will you struggle with the mind unless the physique is strong?” Ananya and Vaibhav were my students at Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University in 2015-16, where I introduced them to the art of running and how it empowers people. Ever since then, they both made running a part of their lifestyle. When they met me in 2022, they talked about the work that SwaTaleem does and wanted to achieve the “almost impossible”. Vaibhav said, “What Dr Rajat has been doing with La Ultra (the ultra-marathon in Ladakh with a maximum distance of 555 km) in terms of running, we both have been trying to achieve for the girls at SwaTaleem.” This led to the inception of the “Run to Fly” programme, empowering girls through running and teaching them life skills through the process.

Yesterday was Kasturba Sangam, an annual fest of 5 KGBVs (Nuh, Nagina, Tauru, Firozpur Jhirka, and Punhana). To kick off this tradition of collective celebration, the 2023 Kasturba Sangam took place in Mewat. The intent was to celebrate the joy of learning, the spirit of togetherness and building confidence through running. This provided the girls with a platform to share their talent and be part of something bigger.

The themes of this carnival were centred on English, socio-emotional learning and running. The event took place in partnership with La Ultra. The events covered 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, and 1600m running distances on the track, apart from speed charade, word relay, role-play, quiz, writing competition, and speak a minute in English – SEL events.

Vaibhav shared, “We take inspiration from the resilience, grit and determination our girls have shown today at Kasturba Sangam. For the first time, they were competing in distances of 800m and 1600m without any formal training, diet or even basic running shoes. Some of them were out of breath, but they were crying that they could not finish the race. This is a unique part of their lives, where access to opportunities is often rare and they do not want to miss even a single opportunity. The fact that they fought with us claiming their positions during competitions, is the fierceness we aspire our girls to exhibit in the world, claiming their opportunities.”

We got customised caps and bags made for the girls who participated to prove that participation is more important than winning. We imparted lessons on how running is a life skill. However, students are motivated by being appreciated, and for that, we had medals for the top three girls in each distance and each category based on age. However, what we witnessed was much bigger than the medals.

Vaibhav went to share something emotional. “Ania, one of the girls from grade 7 from KGBV-Nuh participated in 1600m. Hailing from a village in Uttar Pradesh, she got enrolled in KGBV-Nuh through her local guardian (maternal uncle) from a village in Nuh called Akeda. While other girls were running at varying speeds, stopping in between, she continued running with a consistent speed throughout 1600m, without stopping, with such mental strength and control that would give competition to any trained runner. The character shown by her was par excellence.”

Further, even though this February is already hotter than the last few years, and yesterday was no exception, temperatures were no deterrent. While some girls were struggling with two laps of the 200m track because they had been training for shorter distances, the 800m and 1,600m runs are much harder, especially in these conditions. So when we re-evaluated whether to even conduct 800m or 1600m races, the girls were adamant. Vaibhav said, “Sadia, competing in 1600m seniors, won by more than a lap and a half. However, the more interesting part was her stubbornness to move past the runners in front of her even if the runner was a lap behind. She did not care about just winning; she cared about setting her own benchmark.” This drive and determination to perform at optimal levels, irrespective of the competition around you, is missing in the high-performers of the corporate world, where I also organise workshops.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Vaibhav couldn’t hold back his gratitude. “Pulling off Kasturba Sangam could not have been possible without the local support. It wasn’t easy to put on such an event for 350 girls and their teachers coming from five different schools at another school. From building the tracks, to getting the machines for marking, finding the correct venue, and overcoming the mental inertia of the teachers regarding the participation in such events was not easy. It only happened through the team effort of SwaTaleem and La Ultra and support from local administration and teachers. Support of local administration including ADC Renu Sogan, DEEO Mukesh Kumar, District’s FLN Coordinator Kusum Malik and Host school’s (Government Model Sanskriti Senior Secondary School) principal Mukesh Kumar made the event possible.”

It was teamwork that made it possible, and it will be teamwork again that will help us make a bigger difference at the national level. (Photo credit: FilmArT)
It was teamwork that made it possible, and it will be teamwork again that will help us make a bigger difference at the national level. (Photo credit: FilmArT)

Further, Irfan Khan and Akram Khan run the Nuh Cricket Academy (NCA) on the grounds of the school. They supported us in preparing the track from scratch and provided their students as volunteers in conducting the events. All of that with no agenda or interest. Irfan said, “It’s so encouraging to see our hard work before the events come to fruition.” One of his student volunteers, Varis said, “Sir, now some of these girls will be excited to prepare for running and will win next year.”

This is just the beginning

Such initiatives can’t go anywhere without financial support and we’ve been fortunate to have friends who were as excited about this initiative as we are. As much as running is my passion, Vaibhav makes a good point: It was teamwork that made it possible, and it will be teamwork again that will help us make a bigger difference at the national level. From March, in Mewat, we will be launching a structured programme to train girls in running. This is inspiring.

Vaibhav shares his long-term plan. “By April, SwaTaleem will be associated with all the 36 KGBVs across Haryana and we have set up a vision of serving all KGBVs across India by 2028 and providing support to all the girls in fulfilling their dreams. Just imagine what these girls can do if given opportunities and platforms to excel. More people should come together and trust us. These girls will soon be reshaping society.”

So to people who wonder if La Ultra, the ultra marathon in Ladakh, no longer exists, all I have to say is, we have just got started. However, getting someone to run 555km when a year before they have done 222km or 333km is easy. The real magic is getting these girls and many others like them to start running when everyone has told them they can’t.

Dr Rajat Chauhan is the author of MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days

He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.

The views expressed are personal

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