Women’s football in South Asia has had to battle cultural influence for a long time. The development of women’s football so has been not very encouraging. However, wind of change of a sort seems to have struck the region lately. The ongoing under-18 SAFF women’s championship in Thimphu that began from September 28 stands testimony to it.

Six SAARC nations are taking part in the championship  – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, India, the Maldives, and Pakistan.

Media and Marketing manager with Bhutan Football Federation, Phuntsho Wangdi, said that equal support and opportunities were given to both men and women’s football in the country. “However, we face difficulty in encouraging women in the game. Parents are skeptic about the girls playing the game and the opinion is same in the region.”

He said that the parents supported those women players who are participating in the SAFF championship. “Some good players who we could not include in the squad were because of the lack of support from parents. They [parents] feel that there is no future for the girls in the sport.”

National women’s coach, Sung Jea Lee, said women’s football development in the country was hindered by weak school football programme.

“Strict education system, priority of the parents, lack of benefits and support for women players are the other elements that hinder women’s football, he said. “Women’s football development has no proper system to encourage players after completing Class 12. Their playing time ends after leaving the academy.”

He added that it was important for the government to intervene, support, motivate, and encourage women to take up football.  “We would then be able to perform better in the future. There should be a system in place to facilitate career enhancement and opportunities in the sport.”

Sung Jea Lee said that the government should take advantage of this opportunity.

U-18 women’s skipper of Bhutan, Galey Wangmo, said that strong club competition and forming national women’s team would help develop women’s football. “The players should be supported with good benefits to reduce pressure from family.”

She said that women’s team lack adequate facilities, less exposure and training. “All these hinder our performance in the regional championships. Many of us took up the sport because of our passion.”

The federation has spent 15 percent of annual budget – USD 250,000 – from FIFA and AFC. It also invites support and sponsorships from private institutions to support women’s football in the country.

India’s coach, Alex Mario, said the youth and grassroots football development received attention in the region from the agencies concerned. “It’s happening but it is a bit slow. We can’t expect things to happen in a day. The federation is getting together to help girls get the platform, provide exposure, and we have good coaches coming into the system.”

He said the girls are stepping out of house and challenging the cultures. “India also has certain cultures that refrain girls from coming out. It is not an easy task for them. The tournament will not only be a platform to represent the country, but also to gain lot of experience.”

Pakistan’s coach Mohammad, Siddique Sheikh, said Pakistan had narrow approach towards women playing football and other sports. “However, over the years, participation of women in sports has increased. Every province has programme designated for women’s development. We are coming up.”

Nepal’s coach said that the country expected development of women’s football with coming up of women’s football academy. “There are not much of women coming forward, but they are interested in playing the game. We hope for a strong football development in the country.”

The Maldives coach, Anil Ismail, said that the girls came forward to play despite difficult circumstances in the country. “The girls sacrificed their exams and school days for the championship.”

Meanwhile, the semi finals of the ongoing SAFF U-18 women’s championship begin today at Changlingmithang.