The group of girls runs excitedly as they play a game of handball at the school ground in Madhya Pradesh's Rajgarh district, their body language oozing confidence beyond their years. And when they interact, their smartness shines through their communication.
Students of the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya in this small township in Rajgarh district, about 150km from Bhopal, the girls are living the time of their lives, thanks to an innovative scheme of the state school education department called 'sports for development'.
Hailing from rural areas of the district, these very girls were introverts not too long ago, many of them school drop-outs.
Introduced in 2012 with the support of Unicef, the scheme envisages development of life-skills among girls through sports, improving their personalities and encouraging them to continue schooling, said Rashmi Arun Shami, commissioner of Rajya Shiksha Kendra, which responsible for primary and middle school education in state.
The scheme was introduced in 207 KGBVs, residential schools for girl children in blocks where women literacy rates are poor and selected government girls' hostels.
Under the scheme, children are trained in various field and indoor games like dodge ball, volley ball, leg cricket, football, board games and local games like 'charra'.
"They are made to play friendly matches every day. They are also encouraged to participate in other competitive sports," said Vandana Sharma, assistant warden of the Sarangpur KGBV, who mentors the girls.
Alka Singh, a class 8 student, was brought to the school three years ago from Chhapra village after her mother committed suicide and her truck driver father could not take regular care of her. She was a confused and reclusive girl then, the warden revealed.
But now, she captains the handball team at the hostel, issuing game directives in strong and confident voice.
"Playing the games regularly has given us confidence. We do not fear moving out alone or interacting with anyone. Also, we understand the importance of team work and healthy competitiveness," the girl said.
Radha Gaud, her classmate from Kalali village agrees, saying that they can handle any situation now.
Former residents of the KGBV — the girls have to shift to other hostels once they pass class 8 — Sarita Verma of Jogipura and Krishna Ahirwar of Aamgadha have developed enough skills to represent their districts in state-level kabbadi and kho kho tournaments respectively.
Chief of Unicef for MP, Trevor Clark said sports have the power to change lives, families, and communities.
"It contributes to physical and emotional development of children and builds confidence, instills understanding, and nurtures friendship. It is important that we strengthen sports for development," he said.
Compared to the overall 69% literacy rate in the state as per the 2011 census, the female rate is 59%. However, in rural areas the female literacy rate stands at further down at 52%. And in Rajgarh, the figure is a mere 48.9%.