Where I live
I live in Mahim, an area in Mumbai, India that is part of the Dharavi slum. Mumbai is known as a commercial capital of India -- lots and lots of important businesses run from this city. But if you come to my home, you would not think you are in Mumbai. For one, no one in my neighbourhood has a proper brick house with four walls, a ceiling and stairways, running water and electricity, and proper lanes leading up to the doors. We make our homes with our own hands, with bricks and tarpaulin sheets and tin sheets. Most of these homes don't have running water and toilets. Most people in Mumbai know Dharavi as the 'largest-ever' slum (it is, in fact, the largest slum in Asia), and loads of movies and books have been made about it. Not that this changes anything. It's still this very crowded area full of temporary shacks and open drains, very narrow lanes that get flooded every monsoon.
But I don't mind because I have grown up here. Also, I am working very hard at my studies and at football (that is what we call "soccer" here in India). I know that with hard work and focus, I have what it takes to break out of my circumstances and grow and live better. Unlike my other friends' parents, my mom and dad never said, "You are a girl. You should stay at home and learn to cook and take care of the house." Instead, they said, "She is a child. Let her play!" This is an extraordinary thing to say in my neighbourhood, where most friends my age stay at home, learning to take care of home and hearth at the cost of an education.
My dream project
When I thought a bit about these friends of mine, I thought, "I have to get them out of these homes! The four walls of their homes are preventing them from seeing the possibilities that life has to offer!" And that's just what I did. I started a project to help the girls in my neighbourhood play football, like me.
But before we started to play, I went door to door to try and convince parents to let their girls out to play. This was the tough part. Most parents just said, "How can we allow our daughters to run around like boys? It's not safe!" This is somewhat true because we live in a slum area where crimes (especially crimes against children) are quite high.
Within a couple of visits, I realized that no one was really listening to me, so I started taking my Mom along. My mom shared her story, about me and how sending me for football classes with Magic Bus had probably been the best decision they had ever taken for me. The Magic Bus is a group in India that helps children like me live better lives. My mom told the other parents, "Gulafsha has even been to the USA to be part of a football coaching camp!" This helped because parents listen to other parents.
The Sunday when I organized my first session, only 10 girls came. But by the next weekend, 20 had turned up, and then there was no looking back. Girls love the freedom of playing football. They love the running, the yelling, the teamwork: it is all so new for them. They tell me, "I never knew I had it in me to play like a boy!" Slowly, I am seeing their thinking change -- now they don't believe that staying at home is the only choice for a girl. They are not afraid to go out of their homes.
I feel that once a girl sees that it is possible to be a girl and yet leave home, go out, travel, hold a job -- basically do all that a boy can do -- her thinking changes.
On Winning the Contest
The Judy Foudy Sports Leadership Academy, where the group of girls from the Magic Bus Women's Football Team went for coaching, announced an online voting contest for one of several young girls like me to be sent to the Olympics. I entered the contest with my project. But then I became busy studying and taking my board exams. When they told me I won, I did not have the mind space to feel the excitement fully because I was in the middle of my board exams. In fact, I was at the Magic Bus office (I go there quite often) one afternoon and suddenly I saw a huge group of people in a room, all of them yelling "Congratulations!" It was a surprise -- and they even had a cake.
I am now going for the summer Olympics in London thanks to Julie Foudy, McDonald's and Century Council. This is a dream-come-true situation for me, and I wish more and more of my friends could come with me! My mentor, Kimberley, was so happy, there were tears in her eyes! But I think the people most happy about my win are my parents.
Compared to my friends and neighbors, this is a huge opportunity for me and a unique privilege. Come August, I hope to carry my message of 'play for all girls' to London! It's very nice of Huffington Post to put up my thoughts for millions of people from all over the world to read. I hope that this way, I can share with you some glimpses from my life in Dharavi and also make you part of my dreams for girls here!