Growing panic over COVID-19 made us realize that it was more dangerous to stay in village: Franz Gastler

Fear of spread of Coronavirus pandemic has made many casualties. One among is a US couple, who dedicated their lives for the betterment of Jharkhand's tribal girls and put a Ranchi hamlet on international map. They have been told to leave the area

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Ranchi/Kolkata: United States (US) national Franz Gastler, founder of Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Yuwa, has trained and empowered many tribal girls, was recently forced to move out of Hutup village in Jharkhand, as some locals thought he could bring in Corona infection to them. This village had been his habitat for 10 years.  eNewsroom talked to the coach, who is now living at a friend’s place in Ranchi.

eNewsroom: How are you now?

Franz: We’re grateful to all of our friends in India for their amazing messages of support. So many people have called to ask us, requesting us to stay with them. Indian hospitality is legendary. Even the owner of the saloon where I used to get my hair cut for years messaged me asking us to stay with his family for as long as we’d like.

eNewsroom: Where are you staying now in Ranchi?

Franz: We’re staying with a close friend and his family.

eNewsroom: What was your reaction when you heard people talking about you?

Franz: There are always people who are going to make problems. Recently, a woman demanded that one of our young coaches teach her English to her son. When our coach refused, saying her classes were only for the girls in her football team, the lady went door-to-door telling people not to send their daughters to Yuwa, alleging that we would sell their daughters. She even told people the reason for Yuwa giving milk shakes to our players was to fatten them so that we get a better price when we would traffic them. Some ill-intent and rumors are normal. What makes the situation different now is the growing panic over COVID-19 and we realized that this rumour was much more dangerous for our family.

eNewsroom: What was your family’s reaction?

Franz: Our families are concerned but they trust our judgement and are very supportive.

eNewsroom: Did anyone stop you when you decided to move out of the village?

Franz: No, we’d requested an escort from the SSP Ranchi because officially no one was allowed to travel because of the lockdown.

franz gastler corona covid jharkhand tribal football
Jubilant Yuwa girls during a football match (file picture)

eNewsroom: What next? Do you plan to go back to the village again?

Franz: Definitely. Our work will continue once the COVID panic dies down and the government gives the order to reopen schools and sporting activities.

eNewsroom: What has been the local administration’s response to the whole episode?

Franz: They’ve been excellent! The SSP Ranchi and Ormanjhi thana were quick to respond, and very kind. My wife and I volunteered for a medical check at Medanta Hospital to assure everyone we’re healthy, and completed that, even after the head of the Jharkhand health department told me several times none of us need a test since none of us had traveled recently. Also, we were concerned that we might get exposed to the virus by visiting a hospital. We got the all clearance from the doctors there. The DC of Ranchi has also responded to my request to sent a few medical professionals to our area to facilitate the medical check-up of our young coaches who are being harassed by some people in their communities and are blaming them for COVID-19 pandemic. They are saying, “You travel and associate with foreigners.”

eNewsroom: Being from the US, how did you land up in Jharkhand?

Franz: I started Yuwa in 2009 with three of my high school friends from Minnesota. I did my BA and Masters from the University Professors programme at Boston University, and completed the Programme on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. I was driven by a curiosity to understand the real dynamics at the so-called “Bottom of the Pyramid”. Supported by Sam Pitroda, I first came to India to work with CII on corporate CSR models in Gurgaon. After a year, I left CII to get a more real on-the-ground experience, and landed in an NGO in Jharkhand. I left the NGO to do something more meaningful and impactful – living in a village and starting youth programmes. Originally, Yuwa was a scholarship foundation for hard-working students from a government school to attend a private English medium school. My other co-founders and I pooled our money together for the scholarships. The scholarship programme didn’t work out, but it led to other things.

eNewsroom: Tell our readers about your work at Yuwa.

Franz: In rural Jharkhand, 6 in 10 girls drop out of school and become child brides. Jharkhand has the lowest ratio of teachers per government school in India, and is among the worst for female literacy. The state ranks among the worst for human trafficking and sanitation. These key issues create challenges for empowering girls and women. Yuwa aims to put girls’ futures back into their own hands – to rewrite the script that society has assigned to them. Yuwa does more than simply delay marriages until the age of 18. We are enabling girls to break the cycle of poverty and make powerful decisions about their futures. Our intensive, holistic programmes provide girls with the tools and skills they need to reach their full academic potential, develop critical and creative thinking skills, and become compassionate, empowered leaders in their communities.

Currently, Yuwa has 51 young coaches who have come up through our programmes. Around 43 of these coaches are girls between the age of 14 and 22. These coaches lead daily practices and life-skills workshops for over 500 girls who participate in Yuwa’s football programmes. They act as positive role models and mentors, inspiring hundreds of girls to dream of a different future.

eNewsroom: US is also battling a major outbreak? Are you in touch with your friends there?

Franz: Like most countries, the US was unprepared and it looks like we missed a lot of opportunities to slow the spread of the virus. My friend who’s a nurse said they haven’t seen any cases yet in Minneapolis but the hospital is bracing for it. Another friend moved out of San Francisco with his family before the lockdown and is staying at an Airbnb in rural California until July. When we really take a hard look at the disregard and cruelty with which we as a global society treat animals – both wildlife and animals in agriculture – it’s hard for any of us to just point a finger at China. Their meat markets are barbarous, and yet our industrial poultry farms and slaughterhouses in the US are as bad or worse.

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