The small state of Haryana has the worst sex ratio in India at 879 females per 1,000 males, one of the lowest in the world. Haryana is also known for caste and sexual violence against women and female foeticide, rape, trafficking and domestic violence are common. But a small and scattered community of girls are breaking stereotypes and winning international laurels in sports ranging from hockey to boxing, wrestling to football and rifle shooting. However, the path to pursuing a sport of their choice comes with great struggle. Most of the girls belong to poor families and cannot afford the equipment, diet and upkeep required to play professionally. Most can’t even dream of access to psychologists or medical facilities that their western counterparts take for granted. Facilities have a long way to go and bureaucracy makes it harder for some players to get access to meal schemes, prize money, etc. Besides obstacles on the playing field, the girls battle patriarchy and gender-based discrimination. Most girls realise they may have to give up their careers when their parents decide that they have to get married. But success brings financial freedom and fame, which allows girls to negotiate marriage at a later stage and helps them support their families. The stories of Sakshi Malik and the Phogat sisters have inspired more families to encourage their daughters. These young sportswomen are leading the way in empowering women and helping bring about gender equality in the state. 

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Dinesh Sangwan, 15, pushes a truck tyre as part of strength training at the Chotu Ram Wrestling Academy, in Rohtak. She belongs to a farming village three hours away and came to the city to become a wrestler. ‘I want gold at the Olympics. That’s my ultimate dream,’ she says.
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Boys from Pinki Malik’s family and surrounding villages dance to celebrate her 2016 Commonwealth gold medal at Budha Khera village in Jind district.
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Some of the younger players practice on the grounds of the school in Mangali village. As these grounds kick up dust and are not covered in grass, the players and coach joke about how they would get respiratory issues while playing football.
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Anju and Manju, 19, are twins and their father works as a daily wage labourer. In 2014, their mother suffered from breast cancer. The girls paid for treatment with the money they earned from prizes for winning football matches representing Mangali Girls School.
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Many girls struggle to maintain a healthy diet required to play hockey which in turn affects recovery from injuries. Their hockey coach claims that families in Shahbad actually want girl children after seeing the success hockey has brought them in the past decade.
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At the Chotu Ram Academy, about 35 girls and 50 boys train to be wrestlers. The girls have won medals at the Commonwealth Games, Olympics, SEA Games, Asian Games and many other international and national championships.
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Dinesh Sangwan (centre), 15, lifts weights with her fellow wrestlers at the Chotu Ram Wrestling Academy in Rohtak, Haryana.
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Sisters Anju, Manju and their friend Navneet (centre) from Punjab who moved to Mangali to play football sit with Anju’s aunts in their courtyard. The girls are given leeway to wear their sport outfits in public as opposed to the traditional salwar kameez most women wear in Haryana.
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At Mangali girls school, about 130 girls between the ages of seven and 21 receive football training every day. According to people, the ground was a gravesite several decades ago covered in bushes. It was cleared to make a football ground.
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Sukhwinder Dhillon helps students fill forms to particpate in tournaments on the grounds of the Government Girls Senior Secondary School in Mangali village in Hisar. She was appointed coach 12 years ago and faced resistance from people who accused her of ‘spoiling’ their daughters. Today she has the support of the village.
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Monica Mehla, 21, and her mother Rema, 45, in their one-room house shared with Monica’s father and brothers. ‘My father was against me playing football and wearing shorts but he changed his mind after I started winning medals and bringing home prize money’, she says.
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Sonam, 11, looks through her hockey-related drawings with siblings Neelam, Poonam and Angad who belong to a low caste family. Sonam’s hockey coach arranged to educate her in an English medium school under scholarship but her siblings cannot afford to continue studying.
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Pinki at a ceremony in her village to felicitate her for the Commonwealth gold medal.