Why is it hard for young Indian women footballers to complain about sexual misconduct?

"Girl Power" reads a banner in the stands during a match between Thailand and Vietnam in the AFC Women's Asian Cup 2022, a tournament hosted by India. Maryam Majd ATPImages/Getty Images

Last year, when a metro-based footballer in her early 20s was asked why she wasn't trying out for India's national camp, she said she didn't want to because 'trying out' involved interacting with one of the coaches. The kind of messages the coach sent were infamous and she didn't want any part of it.

Cut to 2022, when the sexual misconduct allegations were levelled against Alex Ambrose, the Under-17 women's team assistant coach, and led to his sacking. It was a rare case of rumours becoming a formal complaint and then being acted on, and swiftly.

How such exploitation stayed undetected is largely down to the indifference of the administration and society's tendency towards victim shaming. The fact that the U-17 team continued playing matches in Europe even as Ambrose was sent home says something.

Why is it hard for young woman athletes to complain about sexual misconduct? ESPN spoke to a few players and other stakeholders. Here's what they say:

No way out

Sports is a way out of their problems for many young women, especially those who don't come from privileged backgrounds. Raising your voice can mean jeopardising not just your livelihood but also your future off the pitch since families can get involved. Like the player (mentioned above) who didn't want to partake in this either to complain or go with it, most prefer to keep mum and stay in the system.

Preference for male coaches and staff

To date, male coaches are preferred over female, mainly because it is believed that will give better results. This is a pattern seen even at the highest level of almost all sports even as female participation keeps increasing. At the last two Olympics, female athletes made up 44% of the Indian contingent - a significant increase from the two before that. But this does not reflect in the coaching staff yet; with just about four women as coaching staff at the Tokyo Games.

There are obviously fewer female coaches in the system, as in most other workforces, because familial and maternal duties often take precedence. In fact, out of the 557 coaches who have passed the introductory 'AIFF Grassroots Leaders' course, only 67 are women.

There are of exceptions, of course. For instance former player Maymol Rocky was national team coach for a long time. And the first four Indian Women's League titles were won by female-coached teams as well.

But even when a male candidate is suited better to a certain job, are they vetted beyond his technical skill? A background check on his reputation or gauging how comfortable the team is with him? A male support staff member spoke about this case in terms of his job, "This affects the whole system. Will the girls not trust me? If I go for another job, what will be the lens I will be seen from?"

Flip this and the question is, can the girls trust anyone in the system to back them up when it comes to such a sensitive matter?

The skewed gender perspective

Women will always be outnumbered in sports, whether it as players or administration or even in the media. This automatically makes it not a safe space to focus on things that can get you in trouble.

In many male dominated fields, even in offices, women have formed an unofficial network where they inform each other (especially newcomers) of potential predators and male superiors to be wary off. A person privy to the inner workings in Indian football mentioned that this is not always the case with football, where most women are silent about things other than the game. One reason can be competition: they often fight for the same spot, or even the fear of being ratted on or removed. As of now there is no united front from women, whether it is current players or former players and administrators. How many Indian players have even spoken about the Ambrose case? (Answer, very few)

Anjali Shah, a member of the AIFF's executive committee and women's committee that is now defunct (though it exists on the official website), says that there are efforts on to have a separate section for women's game in the AIFF. Such a space can not only ensure better treatment of the women's game, but the gender dynamic can be made better to facilitate discussions of sensitive matters too.

Stigma and victim shaming

The culture of victim shaming when it comes to crimes against women is nothing new in India.

A female coach in Mumbai says that most parents don't even want a physically-evident injury on the girls because it will affect their marriage prospects in a patriarchal society. In such a scenario, talking about sexual misconduct is absolutely taboo. This could lead to their careers ending, due to the family's fear. It is easier then to either comply or steer clear.

Lack of education and empowerment

The law of the land states that even consensual sexual intercourse with a minor is a criminal offense. This automatically made this a POCSO case which means a criminal complaint should have already been filed. (ESPN understands this is in process but there has been no update.)

Seeing some of the responses to the situation, the question arises: Do young girls have this information? And if they do, is there someone they can approach other than the designated female physio or official who is already part of the support staff? (Answer: not yet in AIFF)

This is where the role of a safeguarding officer is crucial. FIFA launched a dedicated programme called FIFA Guardians in 2019 with a toolkit to ensure child safeguarding standards within football. It is part of most coaching license courses across the world. The global body has a Safeguarding and Child Protection unit for tournaments and the chief was in Mumbai recently ahead of the Under-17 World Cup. Is there something like this in AIFF that goes beyond the perfunctory seminar as part of a coaching license?

Importantly, this education has to percolate to the young girls playing. The onus is on the clubs and the federation they play for to ensure the girls know that there are mechanisms to protect them. A Mumbai-based female coach says that young boys at clubs are made to attend a session on appropriate behaviour. There is a need for something similar for all young girls entering the Indian football ecosystem.

Normalisation of uncomfortable coach-player interaction

A former state-level player says that physical interaction with male coaches -- whether for punishment or praise -- is common on the playing field. Indeed, violence in reprimand is often seen as a part of an athletes' upbringing. The key here would be knowing the difference between 'good' touch and 'bad' touch, something basic taught to kids.

It's much harder with young women because of what is at stake: their careers, their family's reputation. A player mentioned how as a young girl she called out a coach who was rubbing her back, but not many others did it because of how normalised it is.

The great Indian Indifference

This one needs little explanation. What difference will a complaint make? Remember that the team, even the girl in question, continued to play the matches in Europe after Ambrose was recalled. With a World Cup coming, the show must go on.

When this is the precedent set at the highest level of Indian football, what hope can local players have?