The Yuwa Supergoats seem like a typical girls’ soccer team.
As they play at the Schwan’s USA Cup tournament in Blaine, they somersault and hug after they score goals. They trade handmade bracelets with opponents after their matches.
But those opponents probably aren’t worried about what neighbors think of them wearing shorts, or fear that their families will marry them off before the age of 18.
Yet that is the reality the members of the Supergoats, an under-15 team, face every day in Jharkhand, a poor state with some of the highest rates of child marriage, female illiteracy and human trafficking in India.
“If you say the name Jharkhand even to someone from India, they kind of make a face,” said Rose Thomson, program coordinator for Yuwa.
The Supergoats started in 2009 through Yuwa, a charity program, as a way to create sport and education opportunities for Indian girls.
The team of 18 at the USA Cup represents the more than 150 girls involved back in Jharkhand. The team started with just one girl’s interest and snowballed from there.
It’s the first from India to compete at the USA Cup and played last year in Spain.
“There was a huge amount of interest among the girls in this area because there aren’t opportunities for them otherwise,” Thomson said. “In this place, a girl is expected to serve her family, cook the food. … And oftentimes, she’s pulled out of school at a young age and gets married around age 15.”
This radical divergence from social norms has invited considerable backlash. The executive director and co-founder of Yuwa, Franz Gastler of Edina, said usually girls are isolated and do what they are told, such as work from dawn to dusk for their families.
“What they do is totally counterculture,” he said. “It’s very abnormal and really controversial for girls to be this ambitious and this driven and to be coming together in groups.”
One point of contention among the villagers is the girls wearing nontraditional shorts and sports jerseys while exercising.
“They make tough times for these girls,” said Niharika Baxla, a mentor for the players. “Passing comments when they come for practice like, ‘Oh they are trying to become boys. That’s why they are playing football and wearing shorts.’ ”
More universal is the issue of child marriage and the treatment of women in India — a country with headlines dominated by news of brutal sexual assaults. But the Supergoats, who have near celebrity status there, show a different vision of women.
“There are so many negative stories about violence against women and girls,” Thomson said. “It’s horrific what happens every day. But here are these girls who are taking control of their lives and doing something different. And they’re empowered.”
Yuwa had the parents of every girl on the team sign a legal document with their thumbprint, stating they would not marry off their daughter until she completed university studies and acquired a job.
Some parents remain skeptical, but their children have already begun to inspire a movement of change for rural girls in their country.
“The other girls in India also want to be like us, especially the girls in our neighborhood,” Seema, a 14-year-old member of the team, said through a translator, “because we are getting lots of opportunities to travel around and study.”
And their reach has already started to cross continents. In the stands at one of their USA Cup games were families from Wisconsin who adopted Indian children and wanted to cheer for Yuwa.
“I am very happy for them to see our match, and we are also happy to have India’s people come and see our match,” 13-year-old Chandrika said.
Seema and Chandrika aren’t the players’ real names. Some girls received marriage proposals and unwelcome visits to their homes after their real names were printed in other newspaper stories.
Thomson said the goal of the Supergoats is not to become a soccer powerhouse. Instead, it’s to help the girls command their futures.
Chandrika wants to be an army officer because “there’s not many girls” in the profession. Seema wants to be a lawyer. Their teammates’ planned careers span from teachers to pilots. And if those don’t work out, at least they all have a backup plan — professional soccer players, of course.