Nindi Kumari, the karate queen of Jahangirpuri in north-west Delhi, is taking her ragtag group of a dozen girls through their martial arts drill. Children of daily-wage labourers, household help and thelawalas (hawkers), one of them is barefoot; others wear once-white socks that gather around their ankles. All of them say they are learning karate so they can protect themselves when out in the world.

At 14, Sheetal, who is one of Nindi’s students, has big dreams. She’s going to be an actor, but before she can get there, she needs to be able to defend herself. “Once, when coming back from school, a boy touched me in a bad way. I caught him by the hand and threw him flat on the ground. He was shocked but immediately said sorry and then ran away," she says with a big grin.

You’ll find Nindi’s karate group practising every day at 5pm in a park a short distance from the 336 jhuggis (huts) adjoining the Metro Apartments. Shirtless boys play football while others lurk behind bushes, getting high. When Nindi’s group began training in January, the boys were displeased at the invasion of their turf by this group of impudent girls. “But we chose a small corner and we don’t disturb anyone," says Nindi. As she takes her group through a series of jumping jacks and high kicks, a small group of boys watch curiously from a distance.

Now 20, Nindi began learning martial arts when she was 16. The dimly lit jhuggi that she shares with her two younger brothers, a sister and her parents sports three small trophies and six medals. She has won these through the years at various tournaments—with the cash prize always spent on basic necessities. Once, she even won a smart tracksuit with a “danger" design emblazoned on it. It’s kept aside for special occasions.

To understand the teeming, bursting, high-voltage aspiration of girls like Nindi and her group, you don’t have to look too far. Somewhere close to you, there she is. Waking up before the sun rises to complete her share of household chores before she picks up her satchel and rushes to school; defying the neighbours’ thin-lipped disapproval as she flips through a worn, photocopied study guide; raising money to build a community toilet; mentoring her younger sister through homework—and all throughout believing that in India she has the right to dream, and that with a bit of hard work and minimal support, she can be what her heart desires.

The first stumbling block for these young girls is often the family. “No government policy addresses the structural problem within the family," says Komal Ganotra, director, policy, research, advocacy and documentation, Child Rights and You (CRY), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that has been working in the area of child rights for 30 years. Perhaps the most vulnerable of all girl children are adolescents aged between 14 -18—58.6 million girls in India, according to the 2011 census.

“There are serious issues of security that restrict the mobility and limit the access of girls. Skill development is focused on the sons. Daughters are expected to look after their younger siblings or go into the unorganized labour market and contribute to family earnings," says Ganotra.

Early marriage seems like a solution for parents trapped in social custom and poverty. A 2014 United Nations report found that India has the second highest number of child marriages after Bangladesh. One in five girls is married before the age of 15. Every year, four million of these adolescent girls will become mothers—some will die while giving birth, others will become chronically anaemic. Child marriage has been declining at the rate of 1% per year over the past two decades, but at this rate, it will take another 50 years for child marriage to be eliminated altogether.

Discrimination begins even before their birth. Female foeticide claims the lives of 2,000 girls a day, said Maneka Gandhi, Union minister of women and child development, at the launch of the Prime Minister’s flagship Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (BBBP) mission in January 2015. Our child sex ratio of 918 girls, aged 0-6, for every 1,000 boys in the same age group is the lowest it has ever been since 1961, according to the 2011 census. If you look at the 14-18 age group, it’s lower still: a mere 884 girls for every 1,000 boys, well below the overall sex ratio of 943 females for 1,000 males. India is one of only two countries, along with China, where female infant mortality is higher than male infant mortality in the 21st century. More little girls die than boys because of a deeply ingrained preference for sons, which means that scarce nutrition and expensive medical intervention will be reserved for sons rather than daughters. If there’s one egg in the family, it will go to the son.

The silver lining is that if a girl is born at all, in today’s India she is as likely as her brother to go to school. Girls are now enrolling in larger numbers than boys in school. Analysing government data, this newspaper found in October that the spike in enrolment was most dramatic at the class I-VIII level and is even sustained at the secondary IX-X level. But this number tapers off at the higher secondary level even though in as many as four Union territories and nine states, including West Bengal, Telangana and Jharkhand, girls have surged ahead of boys at all three levels in terms of enrolment.

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When Franz Gastler, an American, moved to Hutup, a village 18km from Ranchi in Jharkhand, he had never played a day of football in his life. The idea of setting up a football academy struck him after the first football tournament he organized, where 100 girls showed up—and no boys did.

Yuwa, an NGO focused on empowering girls through football and education, was born. “The girls wanted to play. They were ready to wake up at 4.30am, seven days a week, because this was the one time in their day when they got to be in a positive place; got to be somebody," says Gastler. Football gave the girls pride in being aggressive, and in the knowledge that if they could play football like the boys, then they could also go to school like the boys. “They began to question the other kind of messaging they were getting from society," says Gastler.

Last year, Yuwa started its own school for girls in its football programme. There are 86 students in the school that so far is till class IX.

From the first football batch, Sita Oraon completed a BSc in chemistry and is preparing for exams in order to apply to universities in the US—she still plays football twice or thrice a week. Others got married and are now housewives like their mothers. In 2010, Punam Toppo gave birth to a girl. On her first birthday, the proud mother celebrated with a party complete with a birthday cake. In Hesatu, the village where she lives with her husband, she’s just started a football programme for girls.

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Despite government programmes and policies and an energetic bunch of NGOs working on empowering girls, the pace of change is far too slow. A term you will often come across is “mindset change". “The bottom line is patriarchy," says Vijaylakshmi Arora, director, development support, CRY.

The principle of gender equality is enshrined in our Constitution. Yet the challenge, 70 years after independence, is ensuring that concepts and freedoms on paper are translated on the ground. No country can proudly celebrate its Independence when the struggle for freedom continues for half its citizens.

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