Field hockey combats human trafficking in India

By Erin Kelly

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A 17-year-old girl, the oldest of six children, was offered the chance to go to leave her town and make money for herself and her family. She was brought by a male acquaintance to Delhi, where she proceeded to work as a maid for a family. By the time she realized she wasn’t being paid, it was too late. Her “friend” was long gone with the money, and she was left with only the hope of being rescued. 

This is the labor trafficking story shared by one of the 106 girls who attended the second annual East India Hockey Project (EIHP), a weeklong field hockey camp and tournament aimed at combating trafficking by helping female athletes ages 14–17 gain self-confidence and leadership skills to bring back to their communities. The EIHP is run through a partnership between Middlebury College, the US State Department, the Indian Consulate and the anti-trafficking NGO Shakti Vahini. It was led by head coach Katherine DeLorenzo and assistant coach Rachel Palumbo, with support from five alumnae who attended the first camp in November of 2018 and seven current players: senior Kelly Coyle, junior Erin Nicholas and sophomores Grace Harlan, Riley Marchin, Grace Murphy, Hannah Sullivan and Joan Vera. The program is based in Jharkhand, one of the most remote and impoverished regions in India. Each girl who attended the camp is at a high risk for human trafficking. 

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“On the surface level, it seems like we’re just playing field hockey, like what is that doing?” Coyle said. “But it’s the small, intangible things about telling the girls to speak up, plus their additional workshops [that teach them] how to use their voice in all those scenarios, that make a difference. Seeing all that together, it made it seem like the impact was a lot bigger than just coming to the field and playing hockey.”

Although the camp only ran from January 27 to February 3, the field hockey girls arrived in India on the 5th, along with eight members of Middlebury’s BOLD Scholars, a women’s leadership program. The students all traveled to Delhi and Kolkata together, and while the athletes helped with the EIHP, the BOLD Scholars worked at a school peace fair. During their travels, Baishaki Taylor, vice president for student affairs, and Rebekah Irwin, the director and curator the Special Collections & Archives, taught a special winter term class for the students, focusing on gender in Indian society. 

“It’s really easy to come in and do a workshop and leave,” Taylor said. “Given our commitment and our mission statement, we want Middlebury students to be able to leave this campus and be ready to address and actually make meaningful contributions to the communities that they live in, no matter where it is. [We want them to] be able to address some of the world’s most challenging problems, not just go in and do a project. The class part provided some glimpses to get a sense of the differences and similarities the world’s largest democracy has [in common] with the world’s strongest democracy.”

It is estimated that over 30,000 young women are trafficked each year from Jharkhand alone, and the EIHP aims to combat this tradition. In addition to practicing field hockey from 8 a.m to 4 p.m each day, the players attended informative workshops. The Shakti Vahini leaders taught the girls practical skills to bring home, such as learning how to spot human traffickers, how to intervene in different situations and how to record evidence on a phone to build a case against a trafficker. At night, the girls were encouraged to share their stories with each other through performative arts, and at the end of the camp, four stories were selected to be professionally reproduced.

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“The girls were all inspirations to everyone who traveled from our team,” said Nicholas. “We kept saying the whole trip that we were probably getting out of it more than they were because we were learning from them the whole time. They have been through so much, and then would come to the field everyday so excited to learn. They’d be dancing in circles and laughing and having a great time and finding the joy in every little moment that they had.”

At the end of the week, the Panthers hosted a tournament for the girls, an event attended by local press and students and even Marie Royce, the assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. On the last day, the five most outstanding campers were invited to come to Middlebury in April, where they will have the opportunity to attend the spring field hockey training camp and immerse themselves in the American culture. 

“One of the girls who I coached all week had won the ‘Most Outstanding Defensive Player’ award had a smile on her face the entire week,” Coyle said. “She was always giggling, always laughing. But on the last day, she started [crying]. One of the interpreters explained that she had never experienced this kind of attention or award or recognition in her life and it was completely overwhelming for her. [She] received awards and people [were] paying attention to her and honoring her in a way she had never [had] before in [her] life.”

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