The Indian women’s football team played its Olympic qualifier against South Korea in sub-zero temperatures this year. Captain Sujatha Kaur has mourned that while the Koreans came equipped with full-sleeve jerseys and gloves, the Indians had to play in half-sleeves offering them little protection against the extreme weather. Such stories of neglect abound in an environment where sports allocations are far from equally divided between the two sexes and where even the world cups, whether in women’s hockey or football or cricket, are rarely broadcast on TV.
Take the national game of hockey, wherein even the top players often have to bunk down in stadium dormitories or wash their own uniforms, and wherein even Chak De! India’s success did not convince the media to give attention to this year’s Asia Cup. True, our team only made it to the semi-finals, but surely skipper Mamta Kharab’s five goals against Singapore or the equal number that Surinder Kaur shot against Thailand deserved some headlined accolades. And when the team had actually won the cup the last time around, they were given Rs 25,000 each, while the male players reportedly got Rs 2.5 lakh for exactly the same accomplishment.
A few days later, bowler Jhulan Goswami won the ICC women's player of the year award and this did get some coverage. It’s however likely that this happened only because the trophy was handed to her by Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who has become the man of the hour after leading his team into a World Twenty20 victory. Most cricket fans of course hadn’t heard of her till this point, despite a remarkable year in which she averaged 12.40 in Tests and 21.80 in ODIs, with an economy rate of 2.10 in Tests and 3.17 in ODIs.
Studies by organizations like the EU-backed Centre for Gender Equality, the WHO and the US-based Feminist Research Center (FRC) all confirm that the media’s treatment of women’s sports as less significant than those of men creates a scarcity of role models available to girls who then end up quitting sports in adolescence while most boys continue playing into their twenties. But lack of media attention is just the tip of the iceberg in India. Inadequate international exposure, decrepit accommodations, scarce sponsorships, lower salaried coaches and fewer job opportunities are some of the other ways in which our sportswomen are treated as second class sportspeople.
Meanwhile other countries, as the FRC puts it, now recognise that whatever the resources, they should be divided equally into two, with women getting 50 per cent of what is available – no more, no less. In pursuance of this human rights imperative, the US passed a law prohibiting sex-discrimination in federally funded education back in 1972, resulting in women’s participation in college sports increasing by 41 per cent within three decades. In Japan, similarly targeted interventions have meant that women who participate in physical activity or sport have grown by 60 per cent since 1957. In Australia and New Zealand, the men and women’s cricket teams enjoy an equal share in everything from the grounds to the revenues.
Even the IOC, which once considered sports such as the marathon, weightlifting, cycling or martial arts unsuitable for women, is now on an equal opportunity march. As a result, women’s events have increased from 3.5 to 45.4 per cent of total events since 1900. Our wrestling legend Chandgi Ram has underlined how India should make the best of such developments: “We want medals. If girls can win medals then let’s tutor girls.”