Friday, August 12, 2022

‘Make Indian football a safe place for girls’ – AIFF Executive Committee member appeals

Incidents of sexual harassment of Indian women footballers are common, redressal is rare and the system has few mechanisms to deal with such complaints. This is the view of Anjali Shah, a member of AIFF’s Executive Committee and Women’s Committee, who says she heard of several such cases in the past few months, but was unable to help because, on the one hand, the victims did not want to pursue case and on the other hand, he believed that the system within AIFF did not give him confidence that his grievances would be dealt with fairly.

She says that the most urgent need at this time is not to stage big tournaments, but to make football a safe place for its women players, especially girls.

Shah was speaking to ESPN after reports emerged that a member of the coaching staff had been sent back for “misconduct” from the Under-17 team’s tour of Europe.

“What must I say, it’s awful,” she said on Thursday. “This has been going on for a while actually and it was bound to come out at some point. I’ve got news of girls being offered [by a member of the coaching staff] In the past, but for whatever reason the girls decided not to pursue the matter as they came from a really poor background and were the only earners in their family. He did not want his name to be associated in this way. They said ‘Ma’am, we don’t need to go to the national team, so let’s just ignore that.'”

Shah spoke of a specific player in his PIFA academy who had received such messages; Shah tried to persuade her to make a formal complaint but the player – an adult – asked her to leave, citing social and similar issues.

“These girls are in such a vulnerable position, they are willing to do anything to be in the good books of the coach. They want play time, proper advice on the game and whatever they do, they feel they are in the good books. Must be the coach. Unfortunately, he has taken advantage of that.”

Shah also warned of reversal of action against the coach. “It’s going to affect the whole team now. Some of them see him as a father figure, and he’s suddenly no more. It’s going to be very difficult for him. He needs all kinds of counseling as well as his own. also. Supporting parents to make them feel safe and secure.”

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She said she was aware of these matters for the past few months and it was a “huge burden” on her. Why didn’t he bring them up in public? One reason was the victims’ own reluctance, as described above. The second reason was the nature of the AIFF, the body that governs Indian football.

She says the federation is run almost entirely without thinking of the women who are involved in the sport. “Unfortunately, the AIFF has become such an irresponsible union that anyone can do whatever they want. At every level. And they knew they could get away with it. No one was accountable for anything.” The welfare of the girls was the last thing on their mind.”

There is a women’s committee in AIFF but Shah suggests that it exists only on paper. “We haven’t had any committee meetings since last year. There was no meeting in 2022. I couldn’t do anything about it like take it even with them. There’s no mechanism, zero.”

Ironically, there has been a relative rise in the profile of Indian women’s football with the AFC Women’s Asian Cup being held in India in January and the FIFA U-17 World Cup in October. But Shah says that the women’s committee was never consulted on this. “Never consulted on anything. It’s a sham of a committee. It’s just there.”

“AIFF called some meetings for pre-COVID. They will come with an agenda, hold a meeting and after the meeting, the minutes of the meeting will never be telecast. Women committee during any major planning was never taken into account. Women’s programs in India. Not even senior citizens. Nothing.”

So who decides on matters related to women’s football? “All decisions on women’s football are taken by the league committee and the national team committee – and there is not a single woman on those committees. I brought it up with them, I asked them to at least take a woman’s perspective on women’s football. . At least for women’s football let us decide? What is the reason for the women’s committee otherwise? It’s just a tick box to show FIFA.”

Shah says that there used to be a three-member women’s department which looked after only women’s football. “about four years ago” [after India bid to host the Under-17 World Cup], I was told in a meeting that there is no longer a women’s football department. “We have abolished the department because there is so much work in AIFF that women have to contribute to men’s football as well,” she said. That was it – the end of the women’s department without any official communication. The women’s department was disbanded overnight.”

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What about the POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) Committee? “Nothing. As per the rules, first there was someone who had left and when the sexual harassment case came up against (former general secretary) Kushal Das, they suddenly formed a committee, headed by Das’s secretary.”

What is the way forward? “AIFF needs to be changed completely. I am demanding a separate department for women’s football in AIFF. We want to work independently from the men’s department, we want our own separate budget.”

They feel that the men in charge will never make the right decisions for women. “Women play football for very different reasons than men. If you don’t understand that core concept, you’re never going to be able to do anything for women’s football in the country. She’s against abuse, against stereotypical roles. Against, standing against him. Early marriage, what not. She is standing up and trying to prove her identity for who she is. You have to keep all this in mind. If you can’t think with that hat on, So whatever you do is going to fail.”

Amidst the gloom, there may be a glimmer of hope – the AIFF itself is in the midst of a change in the Supreme Court order.

The investigation is carried out by the CoA – which includes former Chief Election Commissioner SY Qureshi – and by FIFA. A new constitution is being written, and Shah said she would present some of her suggestions to Qureshi.

“The time is right to bring about a positive change as the AIFF is also going through a thorough investigation.”

Shah has warned that many more cases of sexual harassment should now be made public, but he says the focus should be on the players. “Qualifying for the World Cup is a long way off. Forget the World Cup, for now let’s make it a safe place for our girls. Minimum: Make Indian football a safe place for our girls.”

Note – ESPN has reached out to several members of the AIFF – including the acting secretary general – for their version of events.

Nation World News Desk
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