This Women's Day, we asked five top Indian sports personalities a common question: What's your one wish for Indian women athletes? Here's what they had to say.
Build self belief through combat sport training
I've been lucky compared to other girls in Haryana. My parents didn't treat me like how people expected them to treat girls. We got every kind of freedom that we needed. We got complete support from our parents no matter what career we decided to pursue. But while they would have encouraged me no matter what I decided to take up, I think it helped me that I picked up a combat sport.
I agree that women should be treated equally as men do and get what they get. In Haryana, the thinking is slowly starting to change. But often, I find that it is also women who are afraid to take up opportunities. There is a lot of confidence lacking in women in India. That's where training in a combat sport really helps. It's not just that it makes you physically strong and gives you the feeling that you can defend yourself. More importantly, it also lets you know what your own strength is. A lot of the time you carry a fear that something will go wrong but with training in combat sport like wrestling you have the self belief that even if things go wrong, you can handle it. That gives you a different kind of confidence.
That's why it's my goal at some point, when I am finished with my mixed martial arts career to do some work on encouraging more women to participate in combat sports. It gave me the kind of confidence that I am able to use in other aspects of my life and I think it will help other girls from my background too.
Respect women's achievements
A change I'd like to see is for people to respect achievements in women's sport as much as they do in men's sport. I'll give you an example in Sakshi Malik. She's won an Olympic bronze medal in wrestling just as Sushil Kumar or Yogeshwar Dutt did, but you'll never see her medal treated with the same respect as theirs. I've seen many people dismiss it as a lucky medal. But that's not fair. She put in as much hard work to win that medal as anyone else. This isn't a government policy but this is the feeling I notice among people who follow wrestling. I wonder if this is a wrestling-specific issue because there isn't the same dismissal of Saina Nehwal or PV Sindhu's achievements. Perhaps it's because those are seen as urban sports unlike wrestling which is largely followed by people from a rural background. It also may be that the men's results aren't anything close to the women's in that sport. But unless you start treating all performances equally, you will be signalling to girls that their performances don't matter in the same manner.
More women coaches, and a change in the way we feel female athletes should look like
We need more women coaches and support staff. Largely, it's a male-dominated set up in the Indian athletics system and that needs to change.
The other thing that needs to be done away with is the expectation to conform to the stereotype of what female athletes should look like. Careers of lots of women athletes before me have been ruined over it. I'm glad I could win my battle against gender classification at a time when no one had called out the wrongs of the regulations in place or won a case against it. That time too, I felt having more women in our administration maybe would have helped me and my case may have been looked at differently. Hopefully the women athletes who come in after me will benefit from my victory and will be left alone to compete just as they are, without being robbed of their dignity or rights.
Anju Bobby George
More women in sports administration roles in India
Right now it's a small pool. One reason perhaps is it's post their sporting career -- most women athletes move on with their lives, get married, have families and it can become difficult for them to commit to a full-time administrative role.
But when you take up an administrative position, and I've faced it myself, suddenly you come under a lot of scrutiny. In one particular office I even faced questions about my political affiliations although I had none. There are also aspects for example, which part of a country or state you're from, your religion and the many parts of you that probably didn't matter as much when you're an athlete. Then you wore an India jersey and that was your only identity.
Also when you hold a position of authority in a committee or a federation every decision you make as a former athlete is looked at very closely for bias and the brickbats for a misstep are twice as much than for an administrator who isn't an ex sportsperson.
I think all of this can make retired female athletes often wonder whether it's worth the effort to even go through. For those of us who take up such positions we too have had to push past these doubts because we wanted to be a small part of the system we want to change.
Support of one's family is crucial too. The change has to come from within. If you look at it we probably have a higher ratio of successful women athletes than men, yet a very small percentage transition into being a part of the administrative set-up post retirement. More women need to do that and we need supportive households to anchor it.
An ecosystem that allows, and accepts, constructive criticism
For me personally, being both outspoken and a woman doesn't often go down well with people in positions of power. If we want a better sporting system, there has to be constructive criticism and not just praises being showered. I'm often targeted and abused for my opinions or for not following the herd. In my playing days it was because I wasn't part of an academy where everyone else was joining. My outspoken attitude perhaps works against me when it comes to sponsors and support for my academy. What is the immunity that the ecosystem offers me and other women who voice their opinions? If we want more female athletes to speak up tomorrow, we should start by standing up for those who do so today.
There's also a need to send more young female players abroad for tournaments and exposure trips. Right now it's just Saina and Sindhu in the singles and there's quite a huge gap after that. There aren't enough domestic tournaments at this point either for the next rung to even be noticed. Because of the gulf in quality, these players don't really get to spar with our top two names or improve. And it's not Sindhu or Saina's fault that they aren't able to groom the next batch of players, it's the way the system functions that needs to change.