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Game Changer

Yuwa, a California-based nonprofit organization, is using girls’ team sports as a platform for social development in Jharkhand. 

Every morning before dawn, about 150 girls wake up and make their way to empty soccer fields in Jharkhand. The girls are among the 250 members of Yuwa, a girls’ soccer program founded in India in 2009.

More than 600 girls from tribal backgrounds have played soccer with Yuwa till date, which also teaches life and leadership skills. The program is run by Yuwa, Inc., a California-based nonprofit whose mission is to advance social progress in rural India through this youth-driven initiative.

Franz Gastler, co-founder and executive director of Yuwa, moved to India from the United States in 2007. He studied international political economy at Boston University and served as a consultant at the Confederation of Indian Industry before forming Yuwa, which aspires to change the region’s perception of the rights, role and value of girls in society.

In Jharkhand, less than 56 percent of girls and women can read or write, and six out of 10 girls in rural areas drop out of school to marry young, usually by age 15. The girls who are able to go to school, attend overcrowded classrooms which often lack basic facilities, including toilets and drinking water.

Yuwa offers girls a way out of their traditional life path. Older girls work independently with younger players, recruit team members and run their local teams. After practice, many of the girls go to Yuwa’s seven-room school facility, where teachers help them learn subjects like computer science, English, mathematics and science. They are also guided on matters like transferring to better schools.

Yuwa teams encourage girls to stay in school and take care of their own health and needs, as well as those of their teammates. Team captains monitor their team members’ attendance.

Every week, hour-long discussion-based life skills workshops, led by local women staff members or the girls themselves, are designed based on the girls’ concerns. These cover topics like health, gender, violence, sexuality, self-esteem and finances.

Parent meetings are another component of Yuwa. Girls, coaches and parents meet to talk about issues like whether the girls want to defer marriage in favor of further education, which is a radical concept for many families.

The program started when Yuwa realized that despite being given scholarships to stay in school, the girls in the region continued to miss classes. There was no change in their parents’ expectations of their futures. When some of the scholarship recipients asked if they could start playing soccer, it was a game changer. They developed a tight-knit social community that encouraged school attendance. Yuwa girls also help with household chores to ensure their friends can attend practice, and check in with each other.

Yuwa participants speak at TED events and universities in India. And, they have already competed on three continents. In 2013, a team of 18 girls traveled to Spain to compete in two tournaments—the Gasteiz Cup and the Donosti Cup. For many of the girls, it wasn’t just their first time playing on synthetic turf but also their first time leaving their village in Ormanjhi, outside Ranchi, and flying on an airplane. The team placed third in the Gasteiz Cup. To celebrate their win, the girls donned saris with sneakers and danced on the field.

At the Donosti Cup, they competed against 35 other teams and qualified for the quarterfinals. They became known as “supergoats” when they played barefoot in the friendly matches, in order to save their limited quantities of footwear.

Yuwa has gained massive popularity within Jharkhand as well as worldwide. The organization now plans to build a school for 300 girls and offer soccer training to 1,600. The planned facility will have a soccer field, along with modern facilities like a computer lab and more than 100 soccer coaches.


Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.