Gulafsha is 17 years old and has just completed her high school board exams in India (with lots of prayers and fingers crossed!). Gulafsha lives with her supportive parents and older brother in Mahim, a section of Dharavi, Asia's largest slum. They have encouraged her throughout her five years in Magic Bus and she now plays on the Magic Bus Girls Soccer Team in Mumbai. Through her hard work and dedication in school, family and community, Gulafsha has been able to represent Magic Bus at the 2010 FIFA Football for Hope and at the 2011 Julie Foudy Sports and Leadership Academy. She has taken a lifetime of lessons back from the Foudy Academy and has enjoyed sharing her learnings with other girls her age back home in Mahim and Dharavi.
I live in Mahim, an area in Mumbai, India that is part of the Dharavi slum. Mumbai is known as a commercial capital of India -- lots and lots of important businesses run from this city. But if you come to my home, you would not think you are in Mumbai. For one, no one in my neighbourhood has a proper brick house with four walls, a ceiling and stairways, running water and electricity, and proper lanes leading up to the doors. We make our homes with our own hands, with bricks and tarpaulin sheets and tin sheets. Most of these homes don't have running water and toilets. Most people in Mumbai know Dharavi as the 'largest-ever' slum (it is, in fact, the largest slum in Asia), and loads of movies and books have been made about it. Not that this changes anything. It's still this very crowded area full of temporary shacks and open drains, very narrow lanes that get flooded every monsoon.
But I don't mind because I have grown up here. Also, I am working very hard at my studies and at football (that is what we call "soccer" here in India). I know that with hard work and focus, I have what it takes to break out of my circumstances and grow and live better. Unlike my other friends' parents, my mom and dad never said, "You are a girl. You should stay at home and learn to cook and take care of the house." Instead, they said, "She is a child. Let her play!" This is an extraordinary thing to say in my neighbourhood, where most friends my age stay at home, learning to take care of home and hearth at the cost of an education.
When I thought a bit about these friends of mine, I thought, "I have to get them out of these homes! The four walls of their homes are preventing them from seeing the possibilities that life has to offer!" And that's just what I did. I started a project to help the girls in my neighbourhood play football, like me.
But before we started to play, I went door to door to try and convince parents to let their girls out to play. This was the tough part. Most parents just said, "How can we allow our daughters to run around like boys? It's not safe!" This is somewhat true because we live in a slum area where crimes (especially crimes against children) are quite high.
Within a couple of visits, I realized that no one was really listening to me, so I started taking my Mom along. My mom shared her story, about me and how sending me for football classes with Magic Bus had probably been the best decision they had ever taken for me. The Magic Bus is a group in India that helps children like me live better lives. My mom told the other parents, "Gulafsha has even been to the USA to be part of a football coaching camp!" This helped because parents listen to other parents.
The Sunday when I organized my first session, only 10 girls came. But by the next weekend, 20 had turned up, and then there was no looking back. Girls love the freedom of playing football. They love the running, the yelling, the teamwork: it is all so new for them. They tell me, "I never knew I had it in me to play like a boy!" Slowly, I am seeing their thinking change -- now they don't believe that staying at home is the only choice for a girl. They are not afraid to go out of their homes.
I feel that once a girl sees that it is possible to be a girl and yet leave home, go out, travel, hold a job -- basically do all that a boy can do -- her thinking changes.