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Photographer Captures Young Girls Defying The Odds As Athletes

Wrestling, soccer, and field hockey are fueling a sports revolution

Young girls and women in a poor and patriarchal state in India are going against all odds to pursue sports and excelling at it, despite little to no support or infrastructure. Haryana, which is nearly 125 miles from Delhi, is a state with the worst sex ratio—the ratio of males to females—where female infanticide and other crimes against women are common. But, young girls from Haryana have been winning at the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games, and others and there is a quiet sports revolution changing attitudes toward women in this state.

Photographer Karen Dias is documenting this uprising of female athletes—from the former child bride who was married off at 9 years of age and is now an international wrestler to the soccer field built over a graveyard where 120 girls now play soccer. Her work is a powerful look at a region where female athletes are using sports to reshape their society.


Dinesh Sangwan, 15, pushes a truck tire as part of wrestling strength training at the Chotu Ram Wrestling Academy in Rohtak, Haryana. She belongs to a farming village three hours away and came to live in the city to become a wrestler. “I want to win gold at the Olympics. That’s my ultimate dream,” she says.

At the Chotu Ram Wrestling Academy in Rohtak, Haryana, about 35 girls and 50 boys train to be wrestlers. The girls training here have won medals at the Commonwealth Games, the Olympics, the SEA Games, the Asian Games, and many other international and national championships. They train every day in the morning and evening for a total of six hours a day.

Pinki Malik, 24, is surrounded by her mother and aunts at a ceremony held in her village of Buda Khera in the Jind district of Haryana to celebrate her win in the 2016 Commonwealth Championship which was held in Singapore. Family members and villagers offer Malik garlands of money as a way of congratulating her on her victory and brining fame to her village.

Young boys from Malik’s family and surrounding villages dance to celebrate Pinki’s gold medal the 2016 Commonwealth Championships in Budha Khera village. A DJ is hired and the entire village is invited for lunch by Malik’s family to celebrate her victory.

On the grounds of Mangali Girls School in the town of Mangali, about 130 girls between the ages of 7 and 21 receive soccer training each day. According to villagers, the grounds used to be a gravesite several decades ago and had been covered in bushes which were cleared out to make a soccer field for the school.

(Left) Simran, 13, has been playing hockey since she was 9 at the Shahbad Hockey Academy in Shahbad, Haryana. (Right) Some hockey equipment is supplied to the academy from the government, but most of it is dated and needs to be replaced.

A majority of the girls that train here belong to poor, lower caste families whose parents are farmers or daily wage laborers. For most of the girls, the right diet and health care is out of reach. The coaches and villagers come together to contribute money and donations for shoes, clothes, and equipment when the girls can’t afford it.

Anju and Manju, 19, are twin sisters who come from a low caste family. Their father works as a daily wage laborer and their mother works as a farmer. In 2014, their mother suffered from breast cancer, and the girls paid for their mother’s treatment with the money they earned from prizes awarded to them for winning soccer matches representing Mangali Girls School.

Young girls line up for their morning drills with their coach, Gurbaj Singh, at the girls-only Shahbad Hockey Academy. About 55 girls train here, and almost all of them play at the junior and senior national level tournaments in the country. Boys only began training here two years ago.

Girls get into an argument during training at the Shahbad Hockey Academy. Their coach claims that families in Shahbad actually want girl children after seeing the success hockey has brought them in the past decade. In India, Haryana has the lowest sex ratio; female foeticide and infanticide is common.

Hockey players from the Shahbad Hockey Academy share a packet of chips in a dorm room set up for students traveling from faraway towns to participate in hockey national level selections at the Rajiv Gandhi Sports Complex in Rohtak, Haryana. These girls have traveled almost 125 miles from Shahbad and will spend a week training and living there.

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