Pakistani and Indian athletes building bridges through football


"Today, young female athletes from India and Pakistan have come together to forge new friendships on and off the soccer field" -Ann Stock, US State Department

The United States State Department has an Sports Exchange  program called "Sports United" under the umbrella of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. This program hosts athlete delegations from various countries and sends US athletes to other countries to learn about culture and philanthropy through sport. Sports United encompasses fair play principles to build bridges and empower youth.
From September 11-22, 2012 it hosted 18 young women and two coaches from India and Pakistan.
The ten-day program offered opportunities for the athletes and coaches to speak with sports management and offers conflict-resolution workshops. These young women gained access to young athletes, nutritionists and sports professionals during this exchange. They were provided with a tour of ESPN studios in Washington, DC for a tutorial in Sports Media. 
They met with State Dept Rep James Moore (Deputy Assistant for Public Diplomacy in the Bureau of South and Central Asia)  to discuss their challenges, obstacles and share ideas and provide encouragement for one another. 
(Footballers training onsite)

Most importantly was the opportunity for the women to train with and engage in healthy activity with women from their neighbouring country. It is commonly known that India and Pakistan have many socio-cultural, political and religious divides. The differences between the nuclear-armed countries in opinions of history, geo-politics made it almost impossible to get a visa for many years. Athletes were not able to compete against each other in regional competitions thus greatly reducing the prospects for proper local competition. Only recently have both nations signed an agreement to warm relations and facilitate  border crossing.
To connect these talented women abroad in this manner is critical to continue to bridge building and develop understanding for the future. Each delegate was an ambassador to their country. 
Most importantly to accord these athletes such an experience to empower themselves and provide opportunity for personal growth is outstanding. 
These athletes come from countries where there is not yet support for women's football, either financially or culturally and they can be met with resistance. To engage in an exchange to improve their skill, drive and be enjoyable is a fantastic venture.
As the focus of this trip was football the young women attended a professional women's soccer match with DC United Women's team and worked with JoLi Academy for advanced technical training. They were trained with accomplished players such as Joanna Lohmann (DC United Women and also a Co-founder of the JoLi Academy). Lohmann took to twitter to praise the efforts of the young delegates and respectfully noted their challenges.

This program was a success in connecting women and teaching them how their participation in sport can transcend into high achievement in the classroom and improve life skills.
Passion for football can be used to foster a relationship-building process that is still in its' early stages. 
In an interview with The Hindu, 16 year-old Chinta Anjani Rashmitha from India stated: "Before I came here, I didn't have a connection with any of the people [I have met during this trip]. Now, using communication skills that I never knew I had, I have built a relationship with the people of Pakistan via sports. We get closer with soccer, share our ideas, some in common, some with differences, and become better citizens."  
Despite cultural differences, language barriers and background these women came together, worked hard, trained, observed learned and played a fantastic amount of football.
They have the tools to go back to their communities and teach, inspire and create initiative. 
Sports have the ability to bring people together and produce not just great sportsmanship but wonderfully optimistic people. These young talented footballers are no exception. 

(Delegation from Pakistan)

Pictures from training session:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/50221841@N06/sets/72157631534165851/
c/o US Dept of State: South and Central Asia Photostream