Our local ambassador Kopila Upreti fled from her own family in the Nepalese jungle and became a national team player, winning many prizes and trophies. When asked about her biggest achievement, she didn't mention any of them. Without hesitation, Kopila replied: "I gained confidence in myself to take responsibility for my own life."
Currently, Kopila inspires girls in rural areas of Nepal and supports them to build an independent future using the power of volleyball. We spoke with Kopila about her background and the path ahead.
Kopila her Background
Kopila Upreti is 39 years old and from Nepal. When she talks about volleyball, her eyes light up. "Volleyball is my biggest passion, my heart, and my life. When I play, all problems disappear, and I completely feel happy." Girls were not allowed to play volleyball in the place where Kopila grew up. Looking for an opportunity was risky, but she decided to make a move.
She was born in a small village in the countryside. Going to school was not allowed by her stepmother until she decided to sneak to school regularly when she was nine years old. Walking barefoot to school for an hour and use her grandmother's nightgown as a dress did not stop her.
Every other day we gathered grass and plants for our animals. That was hard work. I often walked with such a big bunch of plants on my back that you could hardly see me.
Finally, after one year, she got permission (and shoes) to go to school daily. She was very eager to learn. Even when she had to collect grass plants for the animals, she took her book to learn. As a result, she often took home too little produce, resulting in her stepmother not giving her any food. She had to go to school on an empty stomach regularly.
At 21, Kopila decided that she had no future in the existing situation. She hid a bag of belongings in the forest and the next day secretly left her family, who thought she was going to the market with a small bag.
For three years, she stayed away, not letting anyone hear from her. Without a plan, money, or shelter, she tried to build an existence.
Through many detours, setbacks, and lots of perseverance, she finally succeeded and became a professional volleyball player at age 22.
Her first experience was playing volleyball with a group of boys. They played on a field near their school. Kopila saw them play and asked if she could join them. The boys were okay with it, but their teachers were less enthusiastic and sent her away. It was not usual for boys and girls to play sports together.
Later she was asked to come and train at a local volleyball training center. The location was an hour's walk from where she lived, but she went. Every single day she walked to the center in the morning and back again after training. She would repeat it for training in the afternoon.
"If I die, no problem!"
Kopila didn't have any sports clothes but got them from the trainer. In the building where she stayed, a man had sports shoes in her size. In the morning at dawn, she secretly took those shoes. She would put them back in place at the end of the day.
After a while, he found out that Kopila was using his shoes. Fortunately, he gave them to her as a gift.
In the following years, Kopila experiences abuse of power, corruption, suppression, and plenty of nights crying herself to sleep. Yet Kopila managed to become a star player on the national team. Not because she was very talented, but because she worked very hard, day in day out.
"If I die, no problem!" Kopila said convincingly. "I just wanted to become a national team player. Purely because of the happiness playing gave me. It wasn't until later in life I realized volleyball gave me a life-changing opportunity."
Changing Lives of Girls in Nepal
Kopila has one specific goal knowing that if she can positively impact one girl's life, she can change a whole generation."
I want to give girls the opportunity to play volleyball. I want to change a girl's life in each local community I come and guide them into making the right decisions. I also feel responsible for convincing parents that playing sports is crucial."
It is difficult for girls to play due to the political situation, but progress takes place with Kopila setting an example. "Sport is not a future for girls in our country. I have to convince girls and their families all the time that sport can do change their lives."
"Often, the girls cry when I leave. I just have to return!"
Girls tell Kopila all the time: "We can't, we can't." She then tells them to look at her: "I am also a girl, let's play." They then often reply with: "But we make mistakes." Kopila then shows them she is too, and that it is okay. "We can make mistakes together, and learn!" Slowly they are building confidence.
The happiness you find in their eyes after make Kopila want to go back all the time. "Often, the girls cry when I leave. I just have to return!"
The collaboration between Nepal and the Dutch Volleyball Federation that started in 2017, is still paying off. Volleyball in Nepal is blooming like a flower. Tournaments are arranged all over the country.
Kopila tells us the equipment they receive is a big inspiration for the girls. They feel people in other countries are thinking about them, and in return, they stay exceptionally motivated to continue playing.
Despite all the setbacks, Kopila has managed to be independent now. She is developing as a volleyball coach and as a human being. She is determined to inspire girls in rural areas of Nepal and support them to build an independent future using volleyball.
Using the Power of Volleyball to Empower girls
Sport has huge potential to empower women and girls. In many countries, it has been recognized that sport can be a force to amplify women's voices, tear down gender barriers, improve girls' and women's self-esteem, and contribute to the development of leadership skills.
In collaboration with the Dutch Volleyball Federation (Nevobo), we embrace Kopila's dream and developed Volleyball4Life (V4L) to deliver a program with a sole focus on women empowerment.
V4L offers a training course for coaches and a grassroots volleyball program, especially for girls. We educate coaches in the V4L program to provide girls with volleyball drills and games, coaching, and community support to build new skills, self-insight, and the opportunity to share their stories and problems. All of this results in personal development and increased decision-making power for the girls.
Kopila is the first of many to come! She wanted to share one more thing before she heads over to the two new girls she met walking back home to play volleyball with:
"If you want to work, you have to follow your passion! Always keep trying and never stop. No matter the mistakes, you can do it!"
Would you like to support Kopila, volunteer, or get involved? Reach out to our team of fingerprints and get in touch. If you enjoyed reading this article? You will definitely want to watch this documentary about Kopila's life!