For the Love of Hockey

Five girls from Jharkhand went for a three-week hockey camp in an exchange program at Middlebury College in Vermont.

By Krittika Sharma

February 2023

For the Love of Hockey

From left: Pundi Saru, Henrita Toppo, Priyanka Kumari, Purnima Neti and Juhi Kumari from Jharkhand went to Middlebury College in Vermont, for a three-week hockey camp. (Photograph courtesy U.S. Consulate General Kolkata)

Sports is a universal language. And the power of cultural exchanges through sports can be transformative. The U.S. Consulate General in Kolkata leveraged the love of hockey and ongoing strong relationships with civil society, law enforcement and government authorities in Jharkhand to kick-start the East India women’s hockey and leadership camps in 2018 and 2020.

“To be honest, many of us did not know the small villages that our ‘sheroes’ come from,” says Adrian Pratt, Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Kolkata. “We had heard that it was an extremely isolated area with few employment opportunities. And because of that, young people were vulnerable to extremism, being trafficked for child labor, bonded labor or forced marriages. And we certainly knew how popular field hockey was in India.”

And so, the opportunity to attend a three-week hockey camp at Middlebury College in Vermont was no small matter for these five “sheroes.” Pundi Saru, Juhi Kumari, Priyanka Kumari, Henrita Toppo and Purnima Neti were selected to attend the second edition of East India Women’s Hockey and Leadership Camp-2020, led by players from Middlebury College.

The U.S. Consulate General Kolkata, in partnership with the Delhi-based anti-trafficking NGO Shakti Vahini, supported by Jharkhand Hockey Federation, South Eastern Railways, Jharkhand Police, and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, launched the East India Hockey Project in 2018 to foster youth leadership among young girls and women in Jharkhand. The project aimed to empower adolescent girls for community leadership and combat human trafficking and gender-based violence.

Meet the players

The selected players fought innumerable hardships but were bound by their love for hockey. Priyanka Kumari from Gumla district in Jharkhand taught herself hockey with a bamboo stick. Her father is paralyzed, and her mother is the family’s sole earner. Priyanka says she had to leave her studies unwillingly and work as a domestic help. “I used to go for a run at 4 in the morning. This was followed by long hours of work at people’s houses—washing dishes, laundry, floor swabbing and mopping,” she recalls.

Pundi Saru from Khunti district has completed her Class 10 and is one among four siblings. She was inspired by Nikki Pradhan, a professional field hockey player, to play the sport. Her father, a laborer, struggles to earn a living for the family.

Juhi Kumari, also from Khunti, comes from a background of financial hardships. Her father has substance abuse issues and her mother sustains the family through her earnings as a daily wager. Juhi started playing hockey with the goal of improving the financial situation of her family.

Henrita Toppo from Simdega district also wanted to bring her family out of poverty and decided to start playing hockey. What started as a means to an end, became her passion once she began training with senior hockey players.

Purnima Neti, also of Simdega, was inspired by Asunta Lakra, the former captain of the Indian women’s national field hockey team, to excel in the sport. Her parents work as laborers on others’ farms to make ends meet. “I couldn’t believe I could get an opportunity to travel to a faraway country. My dreams were limited to Simdega,” she says.

Jharkhand is known for sending some of the most talented hockey players to national and international games. Nikki Pradhan and Salima Tete were the first women hockey players from Jharkhand to play with the Indian side at an international event (the Tokyo Olympics of 2020).

More than a sports camp

Besides learning international-level field hockey, the girls also received lessons in leadership, public speaking, skills training and self-defense classes. “These camps were designed to improve their hockey skills, but we also wanted them to become strong and courageous leaders,” says Pratt.

Beyond these professional feats, it was also a series of firsts for the girls. They boarded their first-ever domestic and international flights, played hockey with the U.S. women’s national field hockey team, watched a Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees baseball game in Boston, attended Fourth of July celebrations and visited the Indian Embassy in the United States.

Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren invited the girls to meet him on their return so that more such efforts can be made to help uplift rural communities. This is also what the girls dreamed of doing, before they left for the United States. “I want to share my experience and learning with my community (especially girls),” says Juhi. “I want to tell them what this sport is all about. Despite their current restraints, this will give them wings to dream big in life and the courage to realize them.”

Rishi Kant, founder of Shakti Vahini, says the camp was especially crucial because of its timing. “The pandemic was a very difficult time for all of us. For two years, children could not go to schools, and this has led to massive setbacks in education and dropouts, leading to an increase in child labor and trafficking,” he explains. “The hockey girls who have been trained in addressing the issues of human trafficking and gender-based violence can play a big role in empowering young girls in their communities.”

“The East India Hockey program has become the face of our many connections and partnerships that has underlined our decade long anti-trafficking and anti-gender-based violence efforts in the state,” says Pratt.

Katharine DeLorenzo, assistant athletic director at Middlebury College, says participants of the program from the college now look forward to further trips to Jharkhand “for the next edition of the East India Hockey Project in late 2023.”


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