Women in Sports: Triumphs and Challenges in India

    • By,
      Nishant Puniani – Student, Kautilya

The last decade has seen India rising as a sports powerhouse spearheaded by women sportspersons. We have witnessed the rise of some of the biggest names on the world stage, such as P.V. Sindhu (badminton), Saina Nehwal (badminton), Mira Bai Chanu (weightlifting), Mary Kom (Boxing), Dipa Karmakar (Gymnastics), Mithali Raj (Cricket), etc. Since the very first Olympics as independent India in 1948, there were no female participants; the first ever contingent featuring women sportspersons was sent in the second edition at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where out of the 64-member contingent, only four female athletes. From the 2000s, when the first ever medal was won by an Indian female athlete, Karnam Malleshwari at the Sydney Olympics (the sole medal winner at those games) to the most recent edition of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, within 20 years, India won a total of 20 medals. Of the 20, 8 awards were won by women, constituting 40% of the winning pool; this percentage is staggering in the face of the women’s participation percentage in India, a mere 6-7%. Even though we have come a long way, there is a lot more that needs to be done; however, the participation gap has reduced drastically, we still have not been able to achieve the 50% participation mark for the 50% population at the Tokyo Olympics it was 44.09% female athletes (56 out of the 127) and the largest ever women contingent.

India has immense talent for a population of 1.4 Billion people, but the stage and opportunities have not always been available. In recent years, there has been a growing effort to promote gender equality in sports, but still, a lot of barriers exist for women athletes, like economic, socio-cultural, male domination, sexual abuse and harassment, lack of family support, and a host of other issues. Nikhat Zareen, the two-time world champion, shared her experience of how her father’s words were the biggest driving force for her. She ruminates about the words spoken by her father when she asks, “Is boxing only for boys? “, “He said, no. But they don’t box because people expect girls are meant to stay at home and do housework.” Another huge challenge for women sportspersons comes from administrative inefficiencies; the recently concluded Asian games featured ten sportspersons from Jharkhand, and from those five have secured a medal; at the same time, the state has been grappling with administrative inefficiencies that affect the women sportsperson the most. There are few roles filled in by women; out of 2088 posts of president, secretary and treasurer, only 58 have been filled by women. The women who have the support of their families and have been able to make inroads in the male-dominated sporting world have to deal with stereotypes, such as developing bodies with physical attributes similar to a man in terms of strength or as they are often socially subjected to comments on their appearances and mannerisms being “man-like” and how they would look ugly, no one would want to marry them.

According to RTI data, between 2010 and 2020, there were 45 complaints of sexual harassment to the SAI, of which 29 were against coaches. The issue of sexual harassment in sports is of grave concern as recently it made the headlines again when some of our greatest wrestlers in the country took to the streets, protesting against the Wrestling Federation of India Chief Brij Bhushan. The biggest question that arises here is: should people in power lead the sporting bodies at the national level? Even after a ban for WFI at United World Wrestling, which entails our sportspersons have to participate as neutral athletes and won’t truly represent India, Brij Bhushan still heads the WFI; even after repeated calls to hold fresh elections, the system has failed the protesting wrestlers and there has been no real action against the “President of WFI”. Then, there are instances of harassment and abuse by coaching professionals. The fact is a lot of women sportspersons are part of camps that are spread across the country and the majority of them are trained by male coaches; within that the power dynamics that exist sometimes lead to situations like harassment and abuse. Sportspersons often hesitate to come ahead and talk about it purely to protect the honor of their families and also their careers. In the past decade itself, plenty of cases have come to light, and it is not just limited to one sport but a whole lot of them, like Cricket (A case was filed against the co-convenor of Cricket Association of Uttrakhand (CAU) under the POCSO act on the grounds of how the 16 year old was harassed and touched inappropriately for several years. The father of the complainant mentioned how she was asked to fulfill the physical needs of the others within the CAU, and there are allegations of the use of casteist slurs). This is illustrative of how the sporting bodies in India still uphold the patriarchal norms, heavily impacting the functioning of these bodies and holding back the development and participation of women sportspersons in India.

From the 2000s, steps were taken to push the development of the sporting ecosystem in the country with the introduction of the “National Sports Policy 2001.” the desired results and outcomes were not achieved as the policy lacked on many fronts. While the policy mentioned gender equality, it did not effectively address the disparities in opportunities and resources available to female athletes in India, the representation of women in leadership roles, etc. In 2011, the government introduced the “National Sports Development Code 2011,” intending to regulate and streamline the functioning of sports organizations in India. The policy had only one line of emphasis on gender, sexual harassment, and representation for women in sports, having no real impact and failing to explicitly address issues of gender-based discrimination, harassment, or abuse within sports organizations, which are significant challenges faced by female athletes. Due to the ethical and governance issues such as corruption and, use of illicit performance enhancers that plagued the sporting ecosystem in the country, the Modi government came out with the “National Code for Good Governance in Sports 2017,” but the policy was never adopted as a lot of National Sports Federations tried to block the implementation for the same. Another positive step undertaken by the government of the day, the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) aims to provide financial and non-financial assistance to elite athletes who have the potential to win medals in the Olympic Games and other major international competitions and the results have been visible recently a lot of sportspeople covered within the TOPS have been able to achieve great heights at international level. At the recently concluded Asian games, women sportspersons showed remarkable resilience and prowess, like Vithya Ramraj, who equaled P.T Usha’s national record time of 55.42 seconds in 400 meters hurdles after a gap of 39 years; she also went on to win a silver medal in 4x400m mixed relay.

We have come a long way since the independence, and there is a lot of ground to cover and learn from past policy decisions and work towards a better future. The momentum with which our sportspersons have been performing at the most prestigious international levels of competitions should continue with the essential support being provided by the government. A move towards more structured policies with sportspersons at the helm, especially promoting more women participation, is need of the hour. There is also a need to involve private entities who have the resources to support the athletes and introduce schemes like “support a stadium” or “support a sport.” A code like “The National Code for Good Governance” was not adopted as there were recommendations in the draft that put up a ban on politicians serving at the top level positions in NOCs and NSFs, had a cap on maximum age to serve at 70, etc. since it was not adopted a lot of the politicians end us serving at the top positions and carry on to violate the sports code which “seeks to put restrictions on the age and tenure of the office-bearers of federations apart from envisaging transparent functioning along with free and fair elections.” .

An effort towards attitude change for pursuing sports as a career is of great importance; it can be done with the help of educational institutions by integrating sports with the education curriculum and establishing an ecosystem for reward and participation of school children at various levels.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.