When Kusum Kumari was nine years old, she noticed a group of girls playing soccer near her family's home in India's eastern Jharkhand province. The image stood out: In her rural community, where girls often marry young and have extensive responsibilities at home, playing sports is a pastime typically reserved for boys.
Ms. Kumari persuaded parents to let her join the non-profit group that had organized the game, and eventually began practising on a near-daily basis. Now 15, she says her years of playing soccer have helped boost her confidence and changed the way she and her teammates are perceived in their village. "I'd like for all people to play sports," she said in a recent interview over Skype. "It's a way to make them healthy and to think in another way from [the way] society thinks."
As soccer fans watched the Women's World Cup , non-governmental organizations worked to draw attention to the broader role that sports can play in the lives of girls. Ms. Kumari was one of several athletes who travelled to Ottawa in June for a symposium aimed at urging governments to invest more in bringing sports to girls in poor and crisis-affected parts of the world.
"Healthy women, educated women and economically empowered women are extremely important for development in general," said Katja Iversen, chief executive officer for the global health organization Women Deliver, which organized the event. "Sport is one of those pathways to get there."
Organizations that use sports to promote social and economic development say girls who get involved tend to be healthier, do better in school and have a better status in their families. And in places such as Jharkhand, where many girls are married in their teens, those who play may be in a stronger position to delay marriage and continue their education.
"Sport has that ability," Ms. Iversen said. "When girls have the opportunity to play sports they also get the power to change their lives."
Of course, not every girl who plays sports will be able to resist an early marriage or persuade her family to let her stay in school. And some communities will simply refuse to accept a sports program for girls in the first place.
But in many cases, simply giving girls a chance to get out of their homes and onto a playing field can have significant benefits, said Nina Valentic, senior director for international programs at the non-governmental organization Right to Play. "When they do have access to sport, it gives them an opportunity to connect and to exist outside the home, which really helps with self-confidence and self-esteem."
Ms. Valentic's organization, which works with both boys and girls, sometimes uses particular strategies to challenge gender stereotypes on the field, such as hosting co-ed games in which only girls are allowed to score. "First, the boys are a little annoyed" by the rules, she said. "Then they learn that if they want to win, they have to pass the ball to girls."
After Ms. Kumari started playing soccer, she said she took school more seriously and began thinking more about what she wanted for her future. She attends additional classes with Yuwa, the non-profit group that she joined, and says she has hopes to become a social worker so she can help other girls.
Soccer has also affected her personal life, she said. Strategizing on the playing field helped her develop better problem-solving skills outside of the sport, and she and her teammates have formed an informal support network for each other. As she continues to play the sport herself, Ms. Kumari has also become a coach for younger girls who are learning to play.
"When I coach the little girls, then I remember my childhood," Ms. Kumari said. "It's the same thing I did. So I can help them [by talking about] how was my childhood … and how can I do better with these children. So I try to do good in my coaching."