In this Indian wrestling academy, young women find freedom and hope

As the winter sun rises over the mustard plantation, fading orange bleeds into a sharp yellow, a group of 36 girls all dressed alike—T-shirts, sweatpants, crew-cuts—out out in an open field, wiping sleep from their eyes. Under a tin shed, they sit on their butts, hunched over a mortar. For the next 20 minutes, they crush raw almonds to a smooth paste, straining a bottle of nut milk. They will need it to regain their strength.

Started in 2017, Yudhveer Akhada is a residential, all-girls, family-run wrestling academy of competing wrestlers in Sonipat, a semi-urban industrial city in Haryana, a province in northern India that borders Delhi. It currently hosts 45 trainees who are usually between the ages of 10 and 15 when they arrive and are expected to stay until they are in their 20s, immersing themselves in the thriving community of wrestling girls. Every student entering the academy has the same goal: to win an Olympic medal for India.

“In India we are surrounded by stories of violence against women,” said Prarthna Singh, the photographer for this story. However, the country has also seen an increase in participation in women’s sports, such as wrestling. “Within those patriarchal structures, we have these academies where young women are carving out a space for themselves as athletes. It is inspiring to see them put forth the dedication and rigor necessary to become one.”

After warming up, their training is different. Cardio days can mean running cross country or climbing stairs. On sports days, they play handball or basketball. The strength-building days are the most demanding of all: the girls must drag blocks of wood across the field or pull themselves up several meters of barbed wire.

“If we hadn’t come here, our lives would have been very different,” he said. Saksha is ruinedAbove, a 16-year-old girl from a farming family in Sonpat. If she wasn’t a wrestler, she said, “I’d drop out of school to get married.”

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