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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

India’s women wrestlers push for reforms after sexual harassment case

A trial court admitted this month a case of sexual harassment and intimidation against the chief of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, an influential lawmaker of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party.

Indian women wrestlers and their families, aghast at accusations of sexual harassment by a top sports administrator, are pressing for reforms, ranging from guardians accompanying contestants to demands for more women officials in senior ranks of the sport.

A trial court admitted this month a case of sexual harassment and intimidation against the chief of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, an influential lawmaker of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party.

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But the delay in taking action drew global attention when top wrestlers threatened in May to throw their medals into the Ganges, Hinduism’s holiest river, in protest about five months after accusing Singh of groping young women during tournaments.

In domestic media interviews, Singh has denied the charges that he sexually harassed the six female wrestlers, who have represented India internationally, with an aide saying his innocence would be proved by the judiciary.

If convicted, he faces up to three years in jail.

“It is a matter of tremendous sadness, but the wrestlers have done the right thing by raising their voices,” said Mona Dahiya, the mother of two teenage sisters, Deepika and Ishanshu, training to be wrestlers in the northern state of Haryana.

“We are worried if some of the top wrestlers could experience this (sexual harassment), then it can happen with our girls too,” she said at her home in Kharkhoda, a town 60 km (37 miles) from New Delhi, as she stirred up strength-giving banana milkshakes for her daughters.

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The Dahiyas, along with nine female wrestlers and their parents to whom Reuters spoke, were determined that none of the young women would give up the sport, however.

Instead, they are setting their eyes on WFI elections set for July to achieve their demand for reforms of a system that provides guidance to more than 53,000 young female wrestlers.

Some parents said they wanted women appointed at all levels of training and running the wrestling federation, as well as other sporting bodies.

“The entire system is full of men … ladies have to be appointed to make girls feel secure,” said Virendra Singh, the father of the Dahiya sisters, himself a wrestler who escorts his daughters to training every day.

“We want our daughters to become heroes, not victims, and the government has to change the entire culture by bringing in female coaches too.”

Others want the government to set up an official group of guardians to travel to events, such as training camps and international tournaments, along with women contestants.

“Parents like me are scared, but we will have to ramp up our vigil and we cannot leave our girls alone,” said Rajesh Ahlawat, the father of a young female wrestler preparing for the 2024 Olympics.

Officials of the Sports Authority of India and the WFI said they could not comment on the accusations against Singh as the matter was in court but acknowledged the absence of women administrators at a senior level in the federation.

Sport and Rights Alliance, a global coalition of non-government bodies that promotes human rights in sports, called for the International Olympic Committee to ensure a transparent, independent and impartial investigation.

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“I can assure you that every girl will feel protected and we are working towards addressing all the concerns raised by female wrestlers,” Sports Minister Anurag Thakur told Reuters.

Yet in Haryana, home to more than 5,000 large and small wrestling schools with a history of turning out some of India’s top female athletes, women wrestlers expressed dismay.

“We couldn’t believe how some of the top wrestlers were forced to leave their practice ground and take to the streets to seek justice,” said one of them, Anjani Kashyap. “It showed a scary side of the sports culture in the country,” she added.