“For my girls, who hail from the slums and lower income backgrounds, a medal at even a divisional tournament can prove to be a life changer”
When the last bell of the day rings, the students of St. Joseph’s Girls Higher Secondary School in Chennai, India, rush out of the tall gates of the campus, chatting and laughing. Soon the facility is empty of students, save for some who assemble in the large hall beside the school office. Another group of girls wearing sweatpants and t-shirts arrives from outside and joins them.
The physical education instructor waits along with the girls for their coach. They don’t have to wait long. J. Narmada and her team soon arrive, and a flurry of activity ensues. A platform at the far end transforms into a training ring, as some students help to hang four heavy tires bound together over a hook on the ceiling. Another set of students hang a punching bag from another hook. Two girls carry 10 boxing gloves between themselves and set them at the edge of the platform while others busily wrap bandages around their palms. Narmada calls out, “Warm up start,” and the girls dutifully start jogging around the large hall as some mothers settle on the seats kept at the far end of the hall.
These underprivileged young women are here to box—to fight, quite literally, for opportunity.
Narmada explains how boxing can help the girls who train in the sport, “It is an individual sport, and the results can come in if you put in hard work,” Narmada tells GOOD. “It is comparatively easy to climb the levels, unlike group sports where only one or two players may get rewarded at one time.”
The Tamil Nadu state government, she explains, has many “schemes and awards,”—cash prizes and college access which can help students turn around their lives. “For my girls, who hail from the slums and lower income backgrounds, a medal at even a divisional tournament can prove to be a life changer.”
Narmada (front right) and her boxing students.
Narmada and her friends, E. Sevvanthi, M. Bhuvaneshwari, M. Nila, and S. Durga, took up boxing in school when the government launched a program to popularize that sport and others among students. Narmada, who was in sixth grade at the time, had not previously been interested in boxing, instead preferring track and field.
Bhuvaneshwari laughs and says they did not even know anything about boxing when their school introduced it. “There was not much awareness about boxing at that time,” she tells GOOD. “The competition, therefore, was lesser—as compared to, say, athletics—and though we trained with only the basic gear, sharing a pair of gloves between us, no punching bag to practice on, we nevertheless won medals and we started looking at it with new eyes.”
Narmada took to the sport and excelled, earning bronze medals at Nationals in 2007 and 2008 and earning a gold and best boxer honors at the state level in 2008. But that’s as far as her boxing career would go.
“When I entered college, I could not find any coaches offering training, and gradually I lost touch,” she says. “By then, I also had a commitment to my family and could not waste time and money on boxing.”
She took a job at the NGO Magic Bus and additionally started working as a trainer at a gym. But, even after she started working, Narmada kept thinking about the opportunities boxing could give girls from underprivileged homes. She hit upon an idea to offer coaching, as lack of coaches was one of the main reasons for the lack of interest in the sport. But, when she approached schools offering her services, there were no takers.
Vani strikes the bag.
Finally, the physical education instructor of the Aynavaram Corporation School endorsed the idea, but warned that the girls in her school would not be able to pay any fees. Narmada said she did not intend to charge, and very quickly she got her first batch of 30 students. She enlisted the help of her friends and began to train the girls—spite having just one glove, no punching bag or bandages, and a public park as training ground.
Around this time, in early 2016, a Tamil language film called Irudhi Suttru came out. The film touched upon the story of how boxing helped a young girl take control of her life. In connection with it, a reporter from a prominent English-language newspaper in the city interviewed Narmada. “After the article came out, various schools started contacting me—not only government schools, but others too,” Narmada says. But she and her friends stuck to their commitment of training girls from corporation and government schools, which generally cater to students from lower-income families. “I come from a low-income home myself. I know the problems faced by the girls, the limitations of even going for higher studies when parents are daily wage earners or work as maids, auto rickshaw drivers, or laborers.
“For these girls, a win or a certificate means more than just a prize or an award, it is a ticket to a better life. They can utilize the money to buy their own gear or to take up higher studies. They can take charge of their own lives.”
One of the most significant changes that the trainers notice in the girls is the buildup of confidence and discipline. Bhuvaneshwari explains, “In boxing, you not only have to think of how you can get your opponent down, but also where they are likely to hit next so that you can dodge and make your move. Thinking along these lines helps the girls become focused, develops their mental strength, and increases self-confidence.”
Kavya, 14, joined the training program because her brother had taken up boxing in his school, “My brother has gone on to the nationals, and I know how much it has helped him, and that’s why I too took up boxing,” she says. “I am willing to put in hard work.”
And the goals—other than reaching nationals—are clear. The Tamil Nadu state government mandates that colleges reserve spots for applicants who have excelled in sport. Some of these colleges also provide scholarships and/or offer assistance to athletes from low-income families.
“I am hoping to at least make sure that I can get admission to a good college through my sports achievements,” Kayva says.
Kayva takes her turn on the tires.
Not all the girls training under Narmada are students. Vani, 21, studied nursing but had to quit her job when she repeatedly fell ill due to infections. Looking for a change, she took a job as a social worker at St. Joseph’s, educating the students about good health choices and the importance of fitness. During the course of her work, she met Narmada and learned about the opportunities that boxing offered. She enrolled in the training, which takes place only after her working hours.
“Boxing offers many benefits. It can help me realize my dreams of studying further, of getting a good job, maybe even a placement in a government organization,” she says hopefully.
Getting a government job is a dream shared by Narmada, her teammates, and her students.
Narmada and her team now offer training at three schools, with each of the five friends rotating the centers between them. Once a week, they meet at one place so that the girls can get to know each other.
“We were very happy when the schools allowed us to use their premises for training because we now have a safe and secure place with good lighting and people all around us,” Bhuvaneshwari says. “Earlier we used to train the girls in public grounds where the girls had to endure the stares and comments by strangers.”
Key help came from local pastor Father John, who advises schools in matters of sport and helps connect them with sources of funding or equipment. He put Narmada and company in touch with St. Joseph’s and helped them buy badly needed gear. “He also roped in 30 students for us,” Bhuvaneshwari says. “He got the gear for the girls—10 sets of gloves, bandages, a punching bag, shoes, sweatshirts and pants.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]For these girls, a win or a certificate means more than just a prize or an award, it is a ticket to a better life.[/quote]
Help also came from a nearby professor who happened to read the article about them. He tracked them down and took them shopping to buy the necessary gear for the girls, spending the equivalent of $176.
“Getting the equipment made a big difference,” Narmada says. “Within six months our girls started getting qualified for the tournaments at divisional, state, and national levels. Four girls got medals at the divisional level—one qualified for the Nationals. Now 10 have again qualified for the divisional level and five for the state-level competitions.”
Acquiring gear for proper training remains an issue, considering the expense involved, but the situation is much better than before when they did not even have a punching bag.
Members of Narmada's boxing class.
Narmada gains fulfillment from her current role, but she certainly wouldn’t mind coaching full time. “If I get a job as a coach, I can pursue my passion and also get a decent salary, and I can also continue providing free training to girls from underprivileged homes,” she says.
I ask Shalini, who is busy fitting her gloves, about her dream and promptly comes the reply, “I want to represent India at the Olympics, like (medalist) Mary Kom.”
Narmada smiles and agrees, “All of us have the same dream, to represent our country at the international arena. If not me, if my students get to do it, I will be very happy and proud.”