Women wrestlers take on rivals and tradition in south Iraq

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Iraqi female wrestlers practise at a gym in Diwaniyahh, around 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of the capital Baghdad, on October 7, 2018. (AFP)
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Iraqi female wrestlers practise at a gym in Diwaniyahh, around 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of the capital Baghdad, on October 7, 2018. (AFP)
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Iraqi female wrestlers practise at a gym in Diwaniyahh, around 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of the capital Baghdad, on October 7, 2018. (AFP)
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Iraqi women's wrestling team trainer Nadia Saeb talks to players during a practise session at a gym in Diwaniyahh, around 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of the capital Baghdad, on October 7, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 30 October 2018
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Women wrestlers take on rivals and tradition in south Iraq

  • Today, the team has about 20 members aged from around 15 to 30 who train three times a week in two-hour sessions after school

DIWANIYAH, Iraq: Sports teacher Nehaya Dhaher was living a quiet life looking after her elderly mother in Iraq’s tribal south when she was asked to set up the country’s first women’s wrestling squad.
Taking on a sport largely reserved for men in a region with strict traditions was quite a challenge but one that both Dhaher and young female sports fans embraced.
“Recruiting wasn’t a problem,” said Dhaher, a tight blue hijab framing her round face.
“On the other hand, it’s been difficult to convince society because our traditions aren’t really headed in this direction,” the 52-year-old told AFP.
Dhaher was working as a school sports teacher and trainer at a sports club but never imagined that one day she would be coaching a group of young female wrestlers in her conservative city of Diwaniyah.
But when the Iraqi Wrestling Federation approached her two years ago with the opportunity to lead the team due to her proven track record with women athletes, she leapt at the chance.
To start off, she found five volunteers at her local sports club to train the Al-Rafidain — “the two rivers” — whose name pays tribute to Iraq’s mighty Tigris and Euphrates.

Today, the team has about 20 members aged from around 15 to 30 who train three times a week in two-hour sessions after school.
On a broad blue mat with a red circle at its center, the wrestlers tumble with determination under the watchful eye of Dhaher, wearing a grey tracksuit.
The gym’s windows are thrown wide open to ease the stifling heat.
Dressed in an assortment of shorts, tights and T-shirts, the young women alternate between stretches and sparring drills.
But when training ends, the wrestlers file out of the building in long robes, most of them wearing headscarves, seamlessly blending into the city where most women are cloaked in black.
“Here, the tribes rule the lives of all. I’ve received direct and indirect threats but we’ve managed to win respect,” said Dhaher.
To do so, they had to put in more effort than the average coach, according to Dhaher’s assistant, Nadia Saeb.
“We’ve built bonds of trust with the wrestlers’ families,” she told AFP.
“We look after the girls, picking them up from their home before practice and returning them afterwards,” she said.
“We even follow up on their schooling,” added the 47-year-old proudly.
The approach has paid off.
At first unsure what to make of the sport’s new female competitors, today people in Diwaniyah come out to support the team during competitions, according to Dhaher.
Al-Rafidain’s success has pushed others elsewhere in Iraq to try the same, with women’s teams popping up in the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, north of the capital, and in Basra in the country’s far south.

As the sport gained popularity across the country, “little by little, people finally accepted us,” said Alia Hussein, the team’s star who sports a stylish short haircut.
In September, she won a silver medal at the Women Classic International Tournament in Beirut in the under 75 kilo category.
Alongside her budding wrestling career, the 26-year-old hopes to finish her high school diploma after having put her studies on hold to help her family.
After graduating, she hopes to study physical education at university.
Her mother, who has adorned their modest family home with Alia’s trophies alongside paintings showing revered Shiite imams and figures, has always been supportive.
“We’re sure of what we do, so people can say what they want — we don’t care, we haven’t done anything wrong, so no one has the right to say anything,” she said.
Wrestling federation chief Ahmad Shamseddine has been supportive of Iraq’s women wrestlers since day one.
When Al-Rafidain first got started in 2016, the federation was only able to give it “a very small budget,” with about $40 (35 euros) a month allocated to each member, he said.
But in 2019, he added, “they will have more because the team has had good results.”


Wedded to debt: Fathers of Indian child brides trapped in bondage

Brides sit during a mass wedding event in Mumbai, India, Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. (AP)
Updated 20 January 2019
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Wedded to debt: Fathers of Indian child brides trapped in bondage

  • Villagers take loans for major expenses, which in most cases are related to health care and or their daughters’ marriages

BUXWAHA, INDIA: For his 16-year-old daughter’s wedding last year, Makhanlal Ahirwal bought Bhawani saris, bangles and anklets, got her in-laws a water cooler, a bed, and utensils as dowry and threw a feast for 500 people in his village in central India.
The celebrations added 200,000 rupees ($2,800) to an unpaid debt of about 100,000 rupees that he’d already taken on for the wedding of another daughter.
To repay the original debt he had traveled 800 kilometers (497 miles) to Delhi the previous year, where he was lured by a promise of good pay at a construction site.
Instead, he was held against his will and denied wages and food for three months before he was rescued.
His experience is not uncommon in India, which is home to 8 million of a global estimated total of 40 million slaves — and where many poor families take out loans to cover marriages and then fall into modern slavery while trying to repay the money.
“I worked over 12 hours and lived in a tent, but wasn’t paid a penny,” Ahirwal said, sitting outside his clay hut in Dharampura village in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.
“I had taken that loan to get my elder daughter married. She was 14 then. But I did not get paid. I had another four daughters to marry, so I took one more loan last year,” he said.
“There is no way I can repay the loan if I don’t migrate and look for work again.”
Landless, and at the bottom in the hierarchy of the Indian caste system, the Ahirwals in Dharampura lean on local landlords who lend money at 4 percent interest.
Villagers take loans for major expenses, which in most cases are related to health care and or their daughters’ marriages.
With no work in villages, many migrate to cities and send earnings home to repay the money lenders, campaigners say.
But in many cases, unscrupulous employers dupe them into working long hours with the promise of good money, knowing they have debts to repay.
Bosses sometimes withhold pay — a practice that can trap villagers for years and is widely seen as a form of slavery.
Makhanlal Ahirwal was among the 22 people from Dharampura who were rescued from bondage two years ago and are entitled to government benefits such as cash compensation and housing.
Each of them had outstanding loans when they migrated.
“Most of us had taken loans for weddings of our children. One daughter’s marriage means four years of debt,” said Nirmal Ahirwal, who was trapped in bondage along with Makhanlal.

UNDERAGE AND OVERLEVERAGED
Many parents in Dharampura plan debt cycles around their daughters’ ages, ensuring the older ones are married before the younger ones attain puberty to avoid clustering wedding loans.
Despite being illegal, nearly 27 percent of girls get married before they turn 18 in India, accounting for the highest rates of child marriages across South Asia.
The practice is especially prevalent among the poorest and the most marginalized and officials said they lean on awareness drives to enforce the law as action against the parents would further victimize families.
Madhya Pradesh is among India’s poorest states and in Chattarpur district — home to Dharampura village — more than half the women were married before 18, government data shows.
Weddings cost up to 200,000 rupees and in many cases push entire families into modern slavery even as young girls are pulled out of schools and pushed into adulthood.
“Both parents and their daughters are victims in these cases ... they are both bonded in different forms of slavery,” said Nirmal Gorana, convener of the National Campaign Committee for Eradication of Bonded Labour.
“Workers we rescue from bondage often cite loans they took for their child’s marriage for taking up the work,” he added.

VOICELESS
Bhawani, Makhanlal’s 16-year-old daughter, comes across as a coy new bride as she walks into her parents’ home, dressed in a pink sari and faux gold bangles, a streak of red vermillion along the parting of her hair and her eyes lined with kohl.
“I never liked dressing up. But now I do what they (her in-laws) like,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I wanted to study. I never said I wanted to get married. But people start talking of even 15-year-olds as 20.”
Teenage girls in the village fetch water, cook, and clean and roll “beedis” (traditional cigarettes) to supplement family income. Most drop out of school young and are wed soon after.
Child marriage without consent is a form of slavery as it pushes children into sexual and domestic servitude, experts say.
“We don’t ask our parents anything. We do as they say,” said Rekha Ahirwal, 14, who dropped out after the ninth grade.

A MOMENT OF PRIDE
Many parents do not see a future for their young daughters so take loans to marry them off, said Bhuwan Ribhu, an activist with the non-profit Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation.
“Besides, the girl’s marriage is a moment of pride for the family in the village as they discuss with the community what all they did, what they gave her,” he said.
Awareness drives have checked the practice, but only to some extent, according to activists and officials.
“We explain there are cash incentives if they get their daughters married after 18, but parents believe the right age ... is 12,” said Ramesh Bhandari, Chattarpur district head.
Bhawani recalls feeling crushed when her father returned exhausted and penniless from Delhi after he was rescued.
“His debt has only increased after my marriage,” she said.
But she has another loan to worry about — that of her in-laws. She will take the risk of migrating “to some city wherever there is work” with her husband to repay the 150,000 rupees they borrowed for their son’s own wedding festivities.
“This is not a big amount,” her husband Paras, 22, said.
“Weddings cost as much. We will find work soon to repay the loan.”