At the southern border of India's capital Delhi, lies Haryana. I visited the boxing club Dronacharya in Haryana's largest city Faridabad, and was surprised to find that among the club's rising stars was an 11-year-old girl—called Kasish Mehta. With her legs dangling on the edge of the boxing ring, she was awaiting the daily sparring session with her training mates to begin. When I ask her what it's like to be the only girl in her age group at the boxing academy, one of the guys sitting next to her jumps in with a reply instead, saying that she doesn't speak English. "Shut up!" Kasish tells him and the boy obeys immediately. "Boys are braver than girls, but my family was very happy and proud of me when I started boxing," she answers.
The state Haryana is known for its gender-based violence and has the worst child sex ratio (the number of girls for every 1,000 boys between the age of 0-6) in the country. Yet, Haryana is also famous for bringing up a large part of India's athletes and particularly for fostering many of the country's best boxers and wrestlers, including women. Recently, a wave of films about young female wrestlers and boxers, often based on real stories, has hit Bollywood. The latest success from December 2016 is Dangal (the highest grossing Hindi film ever) where two young female wrestlers from Haryana, refuse to let the male dominance in the sport, put a stop to their exceptional talent.
Kasish trains for two hours every morning and evening—except on Sundays when she only does a morning pass between 5-7 AM. The coach and the former pro boxer Rajiv Godara, asks Kasish to go a few rounds with a boy of her own age. She proves to be superior to her opponent and after 5 minutes sparring in the sweaty 30-degree heat, she is asked to take off her helmet—while the boy may keep his on. Only seven out of Dronacharya's 350 club members are girls.
And just like the wrestling protagonists in Dangal, Kasish Mehta aims high.
"I want to turn pro, at any cost", she says, before she sets off to climb a four-meter high rope, as part of her daily strength training.
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