POKHARA, Nepal (WOMENSENEWS)--Swastika Bhujel, 22, is blind. But that doesn't stop her from playing cricket. She and her teammates are gaining fame in Nepal as part of 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 she is blind.
"Seeing her play 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 was sitting in the park with 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 replied 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 are the ones who don't have vision," says Sarita Poudel, one of Bhujel's classmates from Baglung, a district in Nepal's western region.
Lack of Panic
Her mother, Purna Kala Bhujel, 53, says that four of their 12 children -- three daughters and a son -- are visually impaired. But she adds that 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."
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.
In addition to the national team, the country now has five district cricket teams for blind women -- in Kaski, Nepalgunj, Chitwan, Butwal and Kathmandu -- says Amrit Baral, president of the Kaski Blind Cricket Association.
"They have about 100 active women players," Baral says.
Baral, who is also a coach, 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. 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 elaborates on this system: "Players from B1 have a red ribbon around their hands, B2's have white and B3's have a blue ribbon. Players from B2 and B3 groups 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.
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.
Dr. Raba Thapa, an ophthalmologist and retina specialist at Til Ganga Hospital, says that sports help boost the confidence of visually impaired people and help them remain active.
Bhujel's coach on the national team, Maj. Pawan Ghimire, a major in Nepal's army, is also blind. He 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 to form the Nepal Association of Blind Cricketers. The Pakistani players also donated $2,550 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 the group decided to form a national cricket team for blind women, which he calls the first in the world, in 2007.
"When I proposed, 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."
Deepak Koirala, chairman of the Nepal Paralympics Committee, says that the Ministry of Youth and Sports gives the Nepal Association of Blind Cricketers $4,500. The association also receives about $13,000 in donations annually from various other organizations.
Ghimire aims to take the team to an international level.
"We'll soon present a world-class blind woman cricketer," he says. "We're working towards that."
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Lochana Sharma reports for Global Press Institute's Nepal News Desk. She aims to use journalism as a tool to promote human rights and social transformation by raising awareness about the barriers women and people with disabilities face in Nepali society.