Nari Shakti and Field Hockey Transcend Cultures

Nari shakti is a Hindi phrase that translates to “woman power,” and during a weeklong field hockey and empowerment camp in eastern India last month, nari shakti was in evidence everywhere one looked.

The occasion was the East India Hockey Project (EIHP), a joint public-private initiative that brought more than 100 girls and young women to the city of Ranchi in the Indian state of Jharkhand for a week’s worth of hockey instruction—and hopefully a lifetime’s worth of empowerment.

It is estimated that over 30,000 young women – most under the age of 18 – are trafficked each year from Jharkhand. Witnessing this scourge in the region, in 2018 the United States Consulate in Kolkata partnered with NGO Shakti Vahini to design a program to combat human trafficking. After receiving funding, the consulate reached out to connections in the United States in search of an American envoy. When Middlebury College Vice President and Dean of Students Baishakhi Taylor got a call about this project, she immediately thought of head coach Katharine DeLorenzo and the Panther field hockey team.

In November of 2018, DeLorenzo and a group of six alumnae made the trip to India to take part in their initial East India Hockey Project. After a successful journey, the Panthers knew they wanted to do more.

“After the first year, we knew that we had a good model that developed strong interpersonal relationships between our Middlebury staff and the young women in the program,” said DeLorenzo. “It became clear that what we were doing was helping to promote freedoms the girls are not afforded in their daily life, so we knew we would return to continue providing the opportunity for them to connect with people who support them.”

“Looking at the world as global citizens is about engagement,” said Taylor. “This year, we were able to expand the coaching staff and bring current student-athletes. I believe that this is just as much a learning opportunity for us as it is for the young women of Jharkhand.”

This year’s coaching squad, led by DeLorenzo and assistant coach Rachel Palumbo, had seven student-athletes—Kelly Coyle ’20, Grace Harlan ’22, Riley Marchin ’22, Grace Murphy ’22, Erin Nicholas ’21, Hannah Sullivan ’22, and Joan Vera ’22—along for the trip. Joining them were alumnae Alyssa DiMaio ’15, Lauren Greer ’13, Anna Kenyon ’16, Carson Peacock ’18, Audrey Quirk ’18, and Lauren Schweppe ’18.

The 2020 Middlebury field hockey coaching staff.

The EIHP selects the young women, who range in age from 14 to 17, from six districts in Jharkhand—Simdega, Gumla, Khunti, Ranchi, Lohardaga, and Chaibasa—to participate in the weeklong field hockey camp and tournament. These girls come from rural, impoverished regions of Jharkhand where they are at high risk of human trafficking and child marriage. They each bring to the group a unique set of talents, but they also have doubts about their ability to gain independence and face the threat of being trafficked. Dozens of these young women have already been trafficked and rescued, or escaped themselves, while others have spent two years in household labor more than 1,000 miles from their villages.

“At camp, these young women are able to experience life as a free soul in a safe space,” DeLorenzo said. “We connect them to how the world actually views them, as vibrant and talented young women. We are able to instill in these girls who we are as women, and how education and self-discovery both play such important roles in our chosen paths.”

The camp got under way on January 27 with a mix of athletes from last year and newcomers. Greer recalls, “There were 106 smiles to match the 106 brave young women running onto the field. Some of the athletes who were there last year could not believe we returned, nor could they believe we remembered them. Of course, we did! For us, it was a relief to see that they too returned to camp. It is tough to imagine what the last year had been like for them, yet here they were, still smiling.”

The aim of the EIHP stretches far beyond teaching skills related to field hockey. In addition to coaching the sport, the EIHP also provides training on how to identify traffickers, as well as education on gender-based violence and gender issues. The girls have time during the camp to tell their stories, which spreads empathy and inspiration.

Between the whistles and the tea breaks, there are some things that cannot be taught but are felt. Harlan says, “From playing field hockey to dancing and braiding hair, I was continually struck by the universality of love and joy.”
Harlan is all smiles while getting her hair braided.
Palumbo poses with a group of campers.

“It is such an honor to be a part of this project,” said Palumbo. “Through the sport we collectively love, we are able to foster deep connections and female empowerment. For the second year in a row, the athletes brought love, enthusiasm, and courageous leadership to everything they did. Their passion and energy around field hockey builds a bridge that allows us to cross the sociocultural divide.”

The EIHP continues to gain support from the United States Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the United States Consulate in Kolkata, and the state government of Jharkhand, India.

Marie Royce, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affrais
“I recently traveled to Ranchi, India, to see one of our U.S. State Department–funded Sports Envoy projects—a girls’ field hockey program run in conjunction with coaches and athletes from Middlebury College,” stated Marie Royce, assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. “In its second year, this incredible partnership helps vulnerable girls engage with peers, civil society, and law enforcement to combat human trafficking. The collegiate leaders from Middlebury College empower girls through sport, creating champions on the field and inspiring self-confidence off the field. Sports diplomacy is powerful, and we thank the Middlebury College participants for serving as citizen ambassadors for their college, our country, and American values.”

Chief Minister Hemant Soren met with the Middlebury field hockey staff at the conclusion of their trip and published his intent to financially support the program’s growth into 2021 and beyond.

The Middlebury field hockey staff members were dressed in saree's by the girls.

As for the Panthers, they are already busy planning their next endeavor. The team is eager and excited to welcome five camp participants to Vermont in April, where the girls will have the opportunity to continue their hockey training, study English, and immerse themselves in American culture.

Created By
Ali Paquette