Levelling the playing field: How Indian women’s football team captain Aditi Chauhan is empowering girls with She Kicks Football Academy
From sports teams in co-ed schools being partial towards boys, and parents enforcing stereotypical gender roles on their daughters, to women athletes being criticised for their ‘unfeminine’ traits, women and girls have always been discouraged from pursuing their passion for sports. But with She Kicks Football Academy, Indian women’s football team captain Aditi Chauhan is changing perspectives and encouraging girls to chase their dreams, one kick at a time.
Aditi first thought of starting a women-centric football academy of her own in 2014, when she was in the UK for her MSc in Sports Management. During her time there, she became the first Indian woman to play for an English football club: West Ham United Ladies FC. After playing two seasons with the team, she returned to India in 2018. Now an experienced footballer, Aditi decided to bring her initial idea to life, and empower other girls to take up the sport professionally.
On November 13, 2018, the first centre of She Kicks Football Academy began operating in Dwarka, Delhi. She Kicks FA is fully self-funded; and all investment has been made by Aditi and her mother, Dr Shivani.
She Kicks FA now has two centres in Dwarka and Gurugram, with 10 coaches and a diverse set of around 40 trainees, most of whom belong to the Under-15 category. The academy believes that every girl deserves a chance to prove herself, and promotes inclusivity and holistic development. It also emphasises on imparting knowledge in a safe environment, and the importance of health and nutrition.
"Among our trainees, there are a few who come from underprivileged backgrounds, and have to travel two hours one-way to reach the training grounds. We provide them with free training and equipment, because we understand the passion. The ultimate mission of She Kicks FA is to help the girls enjoy the game," Aditi says.
Apart from full-fledged training sessions, the academy also conducts workshops comprising fitness sessions, recreational activities for children and adults, and awareness programmes on women's football in India.
Although the number of girls and women entering sports is gradually increasing, many people remain prejudiced, including parents who don’t allow their daughters to pursue sports.
Aditi says that while times are changing, it is still challenging to convince parents to let their daughters follow their passion for football, because it’s still a growing sport in India. But she says it’s important to let children “follow their passion, and do what makes them happy”.
"Ultimately one excels only at the things one truly enjoys and is willing to work hard at. Even if you, as a parent, don’t want to send your kids to a professional football academy, sports still helps them become stronger, mentally and physically, and plays a huge role in developing their personality. There are a lot of things they learn from sport; it empowers them in many ways," she says.
When it comes to media coverage, Aditi says the spotlight on women’s football in India is gradually increasing. The light shone particularly bright when the national team recently won the SAFF Championship, and went on to put up a tough fight against Myanmar for the Olympic Qualifiers. Unfortunately, the Indian team bowed out with a tied score of 3-3.
Aditi hopes that support from the government, the All India Football Federation (AIFF), and the private sector continues to grow.
She feels that the sports industry, in general, is driven by the number of stakeholders involved, the revenues they generate, sponsors, and viewership that they garner. Evidently, all these aspects hold higher value among men's leagues and teams in India, which has consequently led to pay disparity between men and women athletes. Although the industry is steadily growing, it is yet to fasten its roots in equity.
The early days
Boasting a black belt in karate and having played basketball at the inter-district level for Delhi, Aditi always had a keen interest in sports. Her introduction to football took place when she was a child, as she casually started playing with a few friends in the neighbourhood. She went on to play her first competitive game as a backup goalkeeper for Delhi’s Under-19 state team. After this, she fell in love with the sport and decided to pursue it professionally.
Although Aditi’s heart was in the game, her father, a former tennis player, was initially apprehensive. He wanted her to follow in his footsteps, but his perspective changed when she earned her first cap for the country and proudly wore the Indian team jersey. He has since encouraged Aditi’s passion, and has been her pillar of support.
Aditi herself had days of self-doubt and, at times, questioned her future in football. But her zeal and love for the sport has kept her going strong.
“Before I started playing football, I didn’t even know that India had a national women’s football team. It was purely out of passion that I started playing, and that made me work harder. Competition with myself is what keeps me motivated,” she says.
The next game plan
Aditi says she wants She Kicks FA to become India’s best band of women’s football, and produce high-quality national team players. She adds that she wants to give every girl across the country the opportunity to experience this ‘beautiful game’ because “once they kick the football, they will fall in love with it”.
To young girls aspiring to pursue professional sports, Aditi has a few words of advice.
“While it’s important to follow your passion, it’s also important to balance both education and sports. I am now in a position where I could start something like She Kicks FA because of that balance. You may feel like you have to choose between sports or studies, but you don’t. Especially with the focus that we have as sportspersons, it is possible to excel in both,” Aditi says.