Until recently, it was rare to see girls playing a rough and tumble outdoor game in the Gilbert Hill slum of Mumbai. Outdoor play was not only culturally-unacceptable for girls, it was also unsafe. The nearby playground was filled with drug users, harassment from boys was all too frequent and parents levied tough restrictions on their girls in their family, keeping them quiet and close to home.
The girls who participate in Vacha Trust's Gilbert Hill program decided to take action. They would not only reclaim the playground; they would reclaim a culture of play for all girls in the slum. They began by releasing a newsletter calling for safe outdoor play for girls.
Then they planned a “field day” with their mothers showing them the health and emotional benefits of play. Next came a playground event where they invited community leaders and demanded safer play space for girls.
And their final act: flying kites at the playground - an activity generally restricted to boys - to demonstrate that girls were entitled to the space as well.
Today, the playground is safe. Girls have banded together to take on harassers and mothers let their daughters play outdoors just like their sons.
As the late afternoon sun hangs low, Vacha girls swarm the playground and play Kabaddi, a tackling game not unlike American football. Girls young and old plot strategy, shriek as they’re tackled, cheer on their teams and throw their arms up in victory - finding a deep sense of accomplishment that would not have been available to them before their campaign.
Now the girls of Vacha not only now know the power of their bodies - to run, to jump, to swing high and fly free; they also know the power of their voices to speak out and create change.
But perhaps most importantly, they have won the right to stay young. In a culture where girls are so often forced out of education and into early marriage because of the financial pressures on their families, play lets them stay girls just a little bit longer.
Now, in the minutes before the playground gates are opened after school, it's boys and girls who crowd around in anticipation. And for this brief moment, they are all the same.