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Dolly kicks back

With her brother’s love and financial support, Dolly Kumar is training to become India’s next kickboxing champion.

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Dolly Kumar, 14, has a dream that sets her apart from other girls in Bucchabasi, a small village in Uttar Pradesh, India—she’s training to become a kickboxing champion.

In Bucchabasi, it’s uncommon for girls to continue their educations past elementary school, let alone pursue a career. There’s only one elementary school in the village, and when it comes time for secondary school, children have to find a school in a nearby village. This comes with additional costs—tuition and transportation fees—that many parents in rural areas can’t afford.

When considering who to send for advanced schooling, parents tend to prioritize sons over daughters. Kumar chalks this behavior up to an assumption that daughters will join their husbands’ families after marriage and cost their family a dowry, while sons stay with their parents and increase their family’s assets with their wives’ dowries.

“For girls,” she says, “they only emphasize sharpening their cooking and cleaning skills.”

A brother's love

Kumar’s family has started to see things differently thanks to a program called Creating Spaces, which has turned her older brother, Amit, into a strong advocate for gender equality. Creating Spaces is an Oxfam program that works to reduce violence against women and girls and prevent early and forced marriage by helping change the attitudes, behaviors, and systems that normalize violence. Amit Kumar has been learning and internalizing concepts about gender justice through Astitva, Oxfam’s partner organization in nearby Harinagar.

In particular, Amit speaks out for girls’ education and persuades families to invest in their sisters, daughters, and wives. According to Astitva, only 20 percent of girls in the area are enrolled in school.

“In my village, it’s difficult to have a sister,” Amit explains. “There are lots of problems with mindsets around social issues.”

Dolly was once part of that 20 percent. Dolly and Amit’s parents are agricultural laborers, earning around 200 rupees a day (less than $3). When money became tight, Dolly was pulled from school.

She worked in the fields with her parents for two years before Amit managed to convince them to send Dolly back to school. With training from Creating Spaces, he realized girls deserved equal access to education, and argued to his parents that Dolly should have the same chance to achieve her dreams as he does.

Not only did he change their minds, he found her a school and is working up to 14 hours a day to contribute to Dolly’s school fees.

Dolly is enrolled in Kasturba Gandhi Valika Vidhyalaya in Harinagar. There, one of her teachers introduced her to martial arts, and in just a matter of months, she was participating in district and state level competitions.

Now Dolly is also participating in Creating Spaces. Amit brought her there to learn how girls can fight for their rights. She says she has learned about women’s rights, and she is showing other girls in her village that they all have a right to education, and that girls can do exactly what boys can do.

“I urge all the girls to … learn about their [rights] and raise their voices against any kind of discrimination,” Dolly says. “If we do not fight for our rights, we will be suppressed. If we unite and fight for justice, we will definitely get through it.”

Attending regular meetings has boosted her self-confidence and reassured her that it’s okay for girls to focus on sports, she says. Amit calls her his role model. And now, after taking on national championships, she is training for her first international tournament.

“I dream of girls from my village having the same rights as boys,” Dolly says. “Parents need to emphasize education for both their sons and daughters. I feel more girls should come out and prove themselves in comparison to boys in the society. Because everyone thinks girls are far behind.”

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Additional credits: Lead image: Dolly Kumar, 14, a participant in Oxfam’s Creating Spaces project, is out to prove girls can do anything boys can. Photo: Atul Loke/Oxfam

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