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Worlds First National Cricket Team for Blind Women Elevates Social Statuses in Nepal

Global Press Institute - Fri, 21 Oct 2011 10:52 GMT
Author: Global Press Institute
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POKHARA, NEPAL - Swastika Bhujel, 22, is blind. But that doesn't stop her from playing cricket. She and her teammates are gaining fame in Nepal for their success on what they say is the world's first national cricket team for blind women. "At first, even I didn't believe in myself enough to play the game," she says. "But when I put down the white stick and picked up the [cricket] bat, I could play the game well." Bhujel is from Tanahu, a district in Nepal's Western region. She is studying to receive her bachelor's degree in education at Prithivi Narayan Campus in Pokhara, a tourist city in Kaski, another district in this region. Jharana Bohara, one of her college friends, says Bhujel is so good when she plays cricket that people are often surprised to find out that she is blind. "Seeing her play [cricket] so skillfully, people don't realize that she is blind," Bohara says. "But when they discover that and see that she almost never misses her target, they often wonder if she sees with her hands." Bhujel, who also works as a massage therapist, says she could hardly believe her cricket capabilities herself. She says she was sitting in the park with her friends one day when some senior men from her college approached and told her that she should play cricket. "I was taken aback and said to myself, 'If I had the ability to do something like play cricket despite being blind, I would instead use it to bring my vision back,'" she says. But instead she asked them if it were possible. They encouraged her that she was physically fit and could play the game despite being blind. She says she started playing in 2007. Bhujel's friends who aren't blind say her skills put them to shame. "When we look at her play, it seems that we [who have eyesight] are the ones who don't have a vision," says Sarita Poudel, one of Bhujel's classmates from Baglung, a district in Nepal's Western region. Bohara, who is also from Baglung, says she's happy for her friend's achievements. "Swastika is very much ahead of us," she says. "Looking at her play, I feel that it's a God-gifted [talent]. She's won Woman of the Match in almost every game." Bhujel, who plays for the Nepali national team and the Kaski district team, also won Woman of the Match in two blind women's cricket tournaments in 2010. Bohara says their friends receive recognition for Bhujel's achievements as well. "We are not recognized for any particular individual achievements," she says. "Everyone at college recognizes us as Swastika's friends." Bhujel's coach on the national women's cricket team, Maj. Pawan Ghimire, a major in Nepal's army, also vouches for her skills. "Swastika is an honest and skilled player who can undertake leadership," Ghimire says. Bhujel's parents are also proud of her for what she has achieved. Her father, Bam Bahadur Bhujel, 65, says he was concerned about her, their 12th child and the youngest in the family. "Though she was good in her studies but blind, in this male-dominated society we were worried about what she would do," he says. "But now our hope and trust is with her. We're very happy when we see her play. Her talent is no less than that of someone who can see." Her mother, Purna Kala Bhujel, 53, says that four of their 12 children - three daughters and a son - are visually impaired. But she says she didn't panic and instead moved ahead with patience, eventually sending Bhujel away to school to receive an education. "We couldn't send all our visually impaired children to school," she says. "At that time, they didn't have [Braille] education. Our youngest daughter studied until grade six here [in the village], and then we had to send her to a hostel in Pokhara. Her father thought of not sending her because of the attachment they had with each other, but I insisted." Now, when she sees their daughter successful, not only in her studies, but also in sports, she says her eyes tear up with joy. "If others had that opportunity to study, they might have also progressed," she says. "They couldn't study, and now they are married and settled with their families." The proud mother also notes that their blind daughter's cricket skills have improved the family's social status. She says that people respect her because of her daughter's achievements, awards and popularity. She says she feels proud when people tell her they saw her daughter's game aired on television. Bhujel says she also feels she has attained success. She says that people who used to demean her for her disability now want to befriend her, which she says makes her even prouder of her achievement. Thanks to national and international support, members of Nepal's national cricket team for blind and visually impaired women say they are pioneers in the game as the first such team in the world. Special rules and modifications enable the women of varying vision levels to make the game their own. Players and their families say the game has transformed their lives and elevated their social statuses. The women say they hope cricket teams for blind women develop around the world to enable them to compete internationally. Doctors say sports are positive for blind and visually impaired women's mental and physical health. There are about 200,000 visually impaired people in Nepal, according to the Nepal Association for the Blind, a nongovernmental organization that aims to promote and protect the rights and interests of blind and partially sighted people. The association notes that blind women in Nepal are doubly marginalized because of their disability and their gender, limiting their opportunities for education and employment. Many say that cricket has transformed their lives, with about 320 blind and visually impaired cricket players in Nepal. Helping blind women like Bhujel and many others to stand tall in society and achieve their goals in cricket is their coach, Ghimire, who also is blind. Ghimire lost his eyesight in a road accident in 2003. "I spent a year in misery, and then I got an opportunity to learn [how to use the] computer," he says. "After that, I submersed myself in sports." He says that two blind cricketers from Pakistan, Sultan Shah and Abdul Azak, came to Kathmandu in 2006 and trained him and a group of athletes from the Nepal Association of the Blind. The Pakistani players also donated 200,000 rupees NPR (${esc.dollar}2,550 USD) to help develop the sport for blind people in Nepal. "I was always interested in playing, and I had also played in the army," Ghimire says. He says they decided to form a national cricket team for blind women in 2007. "When I proposed [developing the program to the visiting Pakistanis], they agreed, and so we had our first training in Pokhara with the help of Blind Association of Pokhara," he says. "Out of 75 trainees, 22 of them were women." Five years later, the women's team has been able to make its mark. Deepak Koirala, chairman of the Nepal Paralympics Committee, says that the Ministry of Youth and Sports gives the Nepal Association of Blind Cricketers, which was formed in 2006, 353,500 rupees NPR (${esc.dollar}4,500 USD). The association also receives more than 1 million rupees NPR (${esc.dollar}12,760 USD) in funds annually from various other organizations. Suresh Kumar Dhungana, spokesman for the Ministry of Youth and Sports, says that the amount is for the Nepal Association of Blind Cricketers as a whole, not just for the blind women's team. Ghimire, who is also chairman of the Nepal Association of Blind Cricketers and the director of Asian development for the World Blind Cricket Council, says that at a time when women's empowerment and gender equality have made inroads in various fields, he has tried to promote women's participation in cricket for the blind. "Nepal's blind women's cricket team is the first of its kind in the world," he says. He says it's gaining recognition and hopes other countries will establish official blind women's cricket teams, too. "Nepal's blind women's cricket team has also been officially recognized by the World Blind Cricket Council," he says. Amrit Baral, president of the Kaski Blind Cricket Association, credits Ghimire for introducing the game of cricket for the blind in Nepal, which has now expanded to various districts. "Since 2006, there exist five blind women's cricketers team - in Kaski, Nepalgunj, Chitwan, Butwal and Kathmandu," Baral says. "They have about 100 active women players." Baral, who is also a coach, explains the game of cricket for the blind. He says that cricket for the blind has shorter bats, smaller gloves and a shorter running distance between the two wickets - targets that batsmen run back and forth between to score points - compared with normal cricket. Also, the balls have small chains, like the kind on bicycles, which make a sound for the players to recognize and follow. He says the rules are the same as in normal cricket, with one difference. "The visually impaired players are categorized into three groups," he says. "People who can't see are categorized into group B1, those who can see slightly into group B2, and those who can see as far as the wicket or the white part of the pole into group B3." He further explains the modification. "Players from B1 have a red ribbon around their hands, B2's have white and B3's have blue ribbon," he says. "Players from B2 and B3 group do their own bowling and also take their own runs, while players in B1 category have their friends from B2 and B3 take the runs on their behalf. Each run that is in favor of B1 players is counted as a double run - if it's one, it is counted as two, if two, then four and so on." Bhujel plays in the B1 category. Advocates say the original blind women cricket pioneers have not only made a mark on the game of cricket. But they have also inspired many other women to join the game. Bhagwati Bhattarai, from Syangja, a district in Nepal's Western region, says she never thought blind people could play cricket. But now, Bhattarai, a visually impaired 11th-grader who attends secondary school in Pokhara, is a member of the national team and says she's even considering making it a profession. "It is only our eyesight that is lost," says Bhattarai, who lost part of her vision because of a cataract. "But if we're determined and move forward, then we can be successful in every field. Cricket has boosted my confidence." Bhattarai, a B3 player, is now the captain of the Kaski team. She also holds the title of Best Woman Blind Cricketer in the B3 category nationwide and is the winner of the Kamala Smriti Award, an award given to the best cricketers every year in Kaski. She says that every match won deepens her interest in the game. "After playing cricket, the society has changed its perception towards [us], and it's also a great pride for our families," she says. Like Bhujel's family, Bhattarai's family is also proud of her. Her mother, Sarala Bhattarai, says she is proud to share her daughter's success in a male-dominated society, especially since she has multiple visually impaired children. "It's hard to imagine what I went through when four of my children were visually impaired," she says. "But the achievements of our younger son and daughter have helped heal my misery." Bhagwati Aamgai, 20, from Gorkha, a district in Nepal's Western region plays with Bhujel and Bhattarai. When she was 3, typhoid impaired her eyesight, and now she has poor vision. When people suggested she play cricket, Aamgai says she initially resented the idea because she didn't believe she could play. But since she was interested in sports, Aamgai says she took a shot at cricket. She started playing on the pitch and quickly picked up the skills. She is now the vice captain of the Kaski blind women's cricket team. After seeing her play, the coaches from the national team decided to include her on the national roster, too. "I've participated in games in Chitwan in 2007, Nepalgunj in 2008, Pokhara in 2009 and Kathmandu in 2010," says Aamgai, who falls under the B2 category. She says she's also won individual honors. "I've also won Woman of the Match in many games," she says. "And last year, during the games in Kathmandu between Banke, Chitwan, Bhairawa and Pokhara, our team from Pokhara came first." Ghimire says he wants to take the national team even higher. "We'll soon present a world-class blind woman cricketer," he says. "We're working towards that." Shishir Khanal of the Kaski Association of the Blind agrees. "It's important to encourage the world's first blind women cricketers," he says. "I'm ready to help and garner support for them in every way. It's also important to have support from the state, as well as the national and international nongovernment organizations." Bhattarai says she hopes that blind women cricketers will also eventually be able to compete internationally. She says her brother, who is also visually impaired, plays for the Pokhara men's cricket team for the blind and has competed in a cricket match in Pakistan. Although she is happy for her brother, she says she feels sad that the women's team can't compete internationally because there aren't any other blind women's cricket team in the world. Still, she says it's slowly changing. "I've understood that they'll be including two blind woman cricketers in the 2011 Blind Cricket World Cup in Bangalore [India], and if not, [we] will [watch from the] audience," she says. "This will give us more motivation." In addition to motivation, Dr. Raba Thapa, an ophthalmologist and retina specialist at Til Ganga Hospital, says that sports have other benefits for visually impaired people. He says that sports such as cricket help them to remain active and boost their confidence. "Oftentimes, it's found that most of the visually impaired people feel inferior," Thapa says. "This makes them vulnerable and affected by other psychological disorders. Also, due to lack of exercise, they can be affected by other physical problems, too." He says that although sports do not have any positive or negative effects on their vision, the exercise benefits their mental and physical health.

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