From the most influential women leaders to activists, athletes and more, WE United is the story of courage and bravery in striving to break the bias. The WE United Project is a non- profit organisation in Nepal which is advocating for women in sports in Nepal. Initiated in 2014 by two expats Anne McGuinnes and Amanda Cats-Baril, the WE United Project carries the mission to empower women through sports by creating equitable access and encouraging women in sports across the country. With this vision, they started the WE Coach Nepal Programme in 2018 as the first step towards increasing women’s engagement in sports. Twenty-eight female coaches have received certification and 300 girls have been impacted through this programme. The modality of the programme is intensive workshops, trainings and futsal tournaments.
WOW met with Executive Director Arpana Pradhan and Project Manager Silika Shakya to gain insight into what WE Coach Nepal is all about and to learn about its impact. Experts:
How was WE United Project started and what does it want to achieve?
Arpana: I have been associated with the organisation since its founding years. It started with a futsal tournament where I met the founders and instantly realised the lack of opportunities for women in sport. At first, we created a Facebook page posting venues for tournaments and sessions to build our network. We communicated and bonded like a team. Hence, as an organisation we are making sports a medium to empower women and girls in Nepal through leadership training, skill development and team building through dynamic sports activities.
Silika: “If I was a boy, I’d be a football player” – I used to tell everyone when I was young. Sports played a big role while I was growing up. I looked up to my father who has followed his dream and passion as a football player. As a 13–16-year-old back then, I used to think that I had to be a male to be involved in sports. I went to the United States to get my undergraduate degree. After returning to Nepal, I wanted to change that notion. I wanted to show that if given equal resources, opportunities and importance, a female can compete and excel in any sport. That’s when I came across the WE United Project and since then, I have been working on developing and creating more opportunities for women and girls to play sports.
How do you view women’s participation in sports in the country?
Arpana: Women’s sport has a long way to go, there are some changes taking place in the country but it is not enough. Compared to the past, there are definitely shifts in prejudice and stigma of women’s involvement in the game but the changing scenario is still limited to the capital. As you step outside the valley, you can observe the contrast where women are homebound to house chores, schools, and marriage.
Silika: After returning to Nepal spending six years in the States, I came to realise how far behind the county is in education, professionalism, technology, gender equality, infrastructure, systems and policies, let alone sports. But I see hope. There are many passionate players coming forward demanding opportunities.
What kind of barriers did you face in meeting your objectives?
Arpana: The most challenging aspect has to be the participation. Due to time constraints and family responsibilities, women are hesitant to come out which subsequently affects our initiative. We plan on doing different things but we lack resources especially when it comes to funding and more importantly, the involvement of girls.
Silika: I have to admit that we lack resources and support. The lack of awareness makes it difficult to process the whole project as people are still inclined to the stereotypical notion of sports as a male activity. This also makes us one of the very few organisations involved in uplifting women’s sports.
Do you think women are less competitive by nature and thus less inclined to engage in sports?
Arpana: Most of the time we can criticize the media for the objectification of women. Portraying them in fashion, cosmetics and erasing the wider notion of women in sports and leadership. Nevertheless, for today’s generation, social media has played an important role to encourage women’s participation contributing to the wider agenda of women empowerment. Active engagement in social media enables us to gather more participants with pictures, and inspiring and impactful stories. The participation of women in sports changes how others view women and how women view themselves. It’s like contributing to wider agenda of women empowerment.
Silika: Women are not competitive by nature. They are equally competitive. We are just deprived of the opportunity to compete. In the current scenario in sports in Nepal, females have brought home more medals and accolades than males. Encouragement has a lot do with awareness and today the key weapon is social media, bringing the images of girls who actually play is a kind of trigger point to their hidden desires and goals.
What is the most satisfying aspect of the work you do?
Arpana: There are a plenty. The journey itself is really fulfilling for me. Watching girls get out of their comfort zone, seeing them play in the ground satisfies me.
Silika: We go to different districts to organise tournaments and watching young girls take part in it feeds my soul. It reminds me of my childhood where I wasn’t able to get these opportunities but now seeing them play with such enthusiasm, I feel like with the WE United Project is playing an important role to make an impact.
Three things you see as important measures to encourage more young females into sports?
Arpana: First thing first, it starts from the home and then your second home which is your school. The barriers must be broken from the very beginning. What I also believe is widening the scenario of women empowerment through sports.
Silika: As an organiser and a coach, it is crucial to have an understanding of the barriers every female faces related to their involvement in sports. Keeping this in mind, the first thing is to create a safe and welcoming space for them to be encouraged and to increase their participation. Second, we need to build a community including opportunities for skill development which will again encourage their involvement. Lastly, we have to make them believe that they can do it.
How well has the coaching program done? Is sports a sustainable career choice for women?
Arpana: The main agenda of this whole project is not to emphasise someone being a coach or a national player. We are not trying to force girls to do that, never. We are trying to empower women through sports, making them believe that a woman can do anything. It is a part of widening their horizon. Currently, I cannot guarantee the sustainability of coaching as a career choice for women. There’s a mere representation of women in sports, it is a male-dominated world so the first step toward achieving equal representation is paving the way to equality. There is always a possibility and probably the future we are making today will help women to pick sports as a sustainable career choice.
Silika: WE Coach Nepal has been a very successful programme, especially when we stepped outside the valley. However, this is just a stepping stone for women, if they are interested in pursuing their career in this field, the platform has opened doors for them to get further certifications. And yes, girls can start choosing coaching as their career option. If they are equally qualified as their male counterparts, there is definitely a chance to land the job. However, they have to be persistent.
Three positive qualities that a female develops when she gets into sports.
Arpana: Self-expression, accepting failures, and rising from the ashes; these three positive qualities is not only prevalent in sport but also relevant in our day-to-day life.
Silika: Confidence is the most important aspect one can develop through sports. The other two are leadership and hard work.
Coach from Kathmandu
Playing football in the narrow lanes of Kamalpokhari, Suvadra Khadka realised her passion for football at the age of 13. Fast forward to eight years, she is now 21 and continues to play futsal as the captain of Dhuku Futsal. Behind her consistency lies the encouragement of her mother.
It was until she initiated the very first girls football tournament in her school that the sports teacher and others recognised her as a rising star.
She recalls, “When I was in school, boys used to have football house competitions but girls did not. Building a team was difficult as fewer girls were interested. However, insisting my friends and other girls to join in, I succeeded in making two teams. That’s how I kicked off my journey in football officially.”
Today, Suvadra is a Barcelona Fan and a coach. As one of the coaches of the project, she proudly flaunts her achievement to lead a team and speaks about growth.
When asked about what does it take to be a good coach, she answers, “To be a good coach, hard work is the most pivotal factor, without that element everything else is in vain. Even if you have an inborn talent but don’t work hard, success is a far-fetched dream”. She adds, “A player has to understand the yin and yang of victory and failure. Both parts teach us important lessons”.
Through We Coach, she says that she has been mastering the skills of leadership, growth and self-esteem.
Coach from Dhangadi
“Fighting for gender equality in sports should be normalised,” laments Punam Regmi, an Environmental Science student and the graduated coach of We Coach Nepal Program 2021. While training 22 girls in Dhangadi, Punam experienced the harsh reality of zero engagement. Girls expressed their insecurity of playing when they were on their period. They also feared being judged as being weak or physically incapable. For her, the training sessions also meant the difficult job of motivating them to participate. However, Punam managed to reach her students hearts. She earned their with love and respect. “I am thankful for this platform and the ability to make some positive influence,” shares Punam.
Sharing about her experience with We Coach, she says, “The person I was yesterday has changed. I have been transformed and I don’t think this will ever fade.”
Coach from Surkhet
Sunita Shahi started playing football in grade 5. Her interest was so strong that she developed her skills to be able to play in regional tournaments. Sunita is now 18 years old and pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Business Studies. At We Coach, she is a strong advocate for equal participation and safe spaces for girls to engage in sports activities. Sunita says, “Projects like We United should be more active not only in the capital but all across Nepal to build women’s leadership and empowerment. Empowerment is not only uplifting through societal values but also rising through what holds you back and building your confidence.”