The sporting stars in Bangladesh you haven’t heard about

From left: Ching, Rabeya and Seema

Today is International Youth Day. This year, we focus on the role of young people in ensuring poverty eradication and achieving sustainable development.

Nearly half of the world’s population — more than three billion people — is under the age of 25, and nearly half live in low-income countries. Let’s meet three of those young people, in Bangladesh:

Da Da Ching — Khagrachari’s football and wrestling queen

Ching is the bossiest player on the pitch and the strongest on the mat. That’s what she says anyway, striding out of her home in Ramgor, Khagrachari, a tiny town on the border of Bangladesh and India. Her friends, a mismatched team of all ages, and most sporting bare feet, follow her.

Today she is practicing her first passion: football. She places the ball in the middle of the field, takes a few steps back and runs toward it, strong and confident, jersey flying. All the kids are beaming, their full concentration on her. She kicks the ball and it flies into the air, landing on her neighbour’s vegetable patch. The team explodes into laughter and scrambles over the fence to get it back.

Ching is determined to be a professional football player. To get there, she is using her second passion, wrestling. Bangladesh Ansar, the country’s paramilitary force, is paying her BDT 5,000 per month for Ching to train for the Bangladesh Olympics Association wrestling title next year.

Ching joined one of BRAC’s adolescent development programme (ADP) clubs at the age of 12, and discovered her natural talent for sports. Most afternoons at ADP clubs include outdoor game sessions. She is a local superstar now at 17, unapologetically sporting shorts and short hair.

Ching does not mess around. After the ball is retrieved from the vegetable patch, the game starts again. She is not only playing, but also refereeing, mentoring and yelling tips out to the younger players as they run around the field.

When the game finishes, Ching takes a break to cool down. Her sister watches with a pride that cannot be described. The neighbours used to gossip about Ching playing with the boys, dressing like one of them. No one cares about that anymore. Ching teaches football to the girls at the school and everyone loves her.

Bangladesh’s ADP clubs are home to one of the biggest girls’ football teams in the world, comprising of over 1,000 girls. With support from other girls and peer mentors, the girls are kicking goals and making names for themselves all across the country.

Rabeya- A 19-year-old aspiring political leader

Rabeya wields her cricket bat like a sword and doesn’t hold back when it comes to speaking her mind.

She is one of the many girls in rural Bangladesh that is changing the face of village fields. There might be more boys than girls in community spaces still, but watch for a while in most places and you’ll spot a girl like Rabeya now, with her bright smile and cheering friends. In the small village of Mohanganj in northern Bangladesh, she has inspired hundreds of girls to take up sports. She says that no way are women meant to be confined within the safe boundaries of their homes — they can be killer athletes. “If the boys dare tease us, we tease them right back,” she cheekily remarks.

It is not just Rabeya’s sporting skills that are a win for her community. Rabeya will be running for the upcoming election in her local women’s council. She openly talks about education, sexual health, and harassment and counsels parents on mental health. She acts as a liaison between public and local authorities, informing village leaders on public opinions and policies that need implementing. Families in Mohanganj, having witnessed Rabeya become a role model, now allow their daughters to play outside and join ADP clubs.

Rabeya often goes off to other districts for training, along with other peer leaders, and sometimes with village leaders, to learn how to collaborate on issues. These opportunities have given Rabeya authority to speak to elders and ensure a young voice in community decisions.

Rabeya is one of many young female faces in local government in Bangladesh. So far, 2,875 women from BRAC’s village organisations now stand as elected members in union councils.

Seema — Training the next Olympic Dream Team

Seven Bangladeshis are competing for Olympic gold this year. Among them are Sonia Akhter and Mahfizur Rahman, two teenage swimmers. Their eyes are on the finish line, while millions of eyes back home are glued to them.

Enter Seema and her army of young swimmers.

Twice a week, you will find her in the waters of her village, surrounded by excited faces bobbing up and down in the pond. One of the boys gently bumps his head against one of the safety poles in the pond, and they explode in giggles. Seema calls him back. The children line up like Olympic swimmers, and they’re all ready to win gold.

Seema is one of 270 community swimming instructors across the country who have successfully taught over 135,000 children how to swim. These kids can dream to compete professionally, and might even make it, but most importantly — they are safe from drowning.

Drowning is the leading cause of death for children in Bangladesh. From the mossy green ponds across the villages to the mighty rivers surging through the country, the waters of the world’s biggest delta claim approximately 12,000 young lives every year.

Netrokona’s little swim team are safe though, ducking through overhanging branches and gliding towards their imaginary gold medals. Seema watches them intently, equipped with the rescue and first aid skills that she learnt in her ADP club. She’ll finish the lesson and then help them, through training, mentoring and education, to make sure they are making waves out of the pool as well.

Seema is not only making waves in the water, but all throughout her community, empowering young girls and boys to dive in headfirst into whatever they want to be.

Seema was selected by BRAC and UNICEF, and trained on safe swimming lessons by SwimSafe.

There are 9,000 ADP clubs across Bangladesh, providing safe spaces where 300,000 young women are given the chance to be themselves, and the skills to become what they want to be. They learn life skills, social confidence and entrepreneurship, share experiences and build networks. Research has shown that ADP clubs help girls to stay in school, become more financially literate and communicate more confidently. Similar clubs have also been started by BRAC in five other countries; Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan, Sierra Leone and Tanzania.

This International Youth Day, let’s celebrate what happens when we focus on creating opportunities for the young half of the world’s population. They, after all, have the most vested interest in a better world, because they are the ones who will live in it. Let’s give them a chance, just like Ching, Rabeya and Seema, to kick some goals. There is no doubt that we will all benefit.

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