Overcoming gender stereotypes in rugby

By Erica Lee

“The struggles and obstacles that women in sport face on a daily basis is often undocumented and only known by those within the fraternity. Our society and culture still wrangle with the reality that women can lift weights, tackle like a beast and run the oval ball.”

Striders Women’s Rugby Club Team Manager Akisi Rabulimasei speaks about the many hurdles that her club has had to overcome in promoting gender equality and an equal playing field for women in this male-dominated sport.

A lack of support structures and facilities, cultural norms and household expectations, inadequate media coverage and the limited nature of funding continues to hinder the development of rugby for women and girls in Fiji.

Striders Women’s Rugby Club formed in 2011 by Akisi and two other young professional women hopes to break some of these stereotypes and to use rugby as a means of empowerment, fitness, and fun. Their vision was to create a safe space free of politics and governance issues that other clubs were facing at the time.  But starting the club was no easy feat and each of them received criticism and backlash within the rugby fraternity and from their communities.

“When we formed the club over nine years ago, women playing rugby was still fairly new for Fiji and so the mindset of many in our community was very negative.  Our culture and the perception of our society was that women should not be seen as masculine.  It is this very mindset that holds back many girls from entering the sport from a young age.”

She adds that people often only see strong-looking women playing a man’s sport and don’t realise that many of them hold jobs as nurses, police officers, development workers and they also balance studies and are raising families.

Based in Suva, the Club is the top 7s and 15s women’s rugby club in Fiji and has consistently competed in the Coral Coast 7s tournament annually.  The Club has won the Nawaka 7s, Marist 7s, Mokani 7s, and the Coral Coast 7s tournaments. Notably, 12 of its members are also national representatives (Fijiana 7s and 15s Teams) who have played in numerous international tournaments and Olympic Games qualifiers.

The Club operates on donations, private sector sponsorship, proceeds from fundraising and prize money from tournaments. The Club’s vision is to diversify the economic opportunities of its members by providing the building blocks to strengthen their professional earning capacity.

Programmes for girls

The Club’s Tuberi Program (formerly Learn to Play Rugby Program For Girls) focuses on changing mindsets and encouraging girls to get into the sport.  The programs run during the school holidays and accept 30 girls between the ages of 12 – 19.  These programmes are funded through private sector sponsorship and the Club’s own income.  It teaches the girls an appreciation for the sport and helps build them toward a possible future in rugby. Many of the girls under these programs have gone onto joining their junior club – Baby Striders and have played a few national tournaments. Even though these programmes have been successful, the Club still struggles with community acceptance and support.

Akisi describes instances where the club has had to work with communities and parents who would prefer seeing their daughters take up more feminine sports like netball.  She says that the sustainability of the Club and women’s continued participation in rugby relies heavily on younger generations of girls taking up the sport.


The lack of fitness facilities for women and girls

Creating an enabling environment for women to thrive in sport also means that’s there needs to be fitness centres (gyms) and sporting facilities catering to their needs. Concerned with the lack of facilities available along the Nausori – Suva corridor where the majority of Fiji’s population resides, the Club developed a plan to develop Fiji’s first gym for women.

In March 2019, the Striders Women’s Rugby Club received a grant of FJD 15,000 from the Fiji Women’s Fund. The grant supported the Club to undertake market research to determine the feasibility of their idea. From this assessment, the Club hopes to develop a business plan to start a mobile gym.  The gym – a truck fitted with exercise and weightlifting equipment, driven up and down the Suva-Nausori corridor catering to the fitness needs of women and girls.  The Club hopes it will be a space for women to feel comfortable in their own skin and free from judgment and harassment.  The feasibility assessment is currently underway and results should be reported later in the year.

Also, through the Fiji Women’s Fund support, the Club has been able to strengthen its internal governance policies and already have a draft child protection policy which it hopes to incorporate into the new season of girl’s programmes.

More opportunities for women in rugby

The Club’s long-term goal is to raise enough funds to be self-sustaining and to also provide rugby scholarships for young girls who show potential in rugby.

Akisi says that she has noticed a big improvement in the recognition of women in rugby. “There are many opportunities for women to travel and to represent their country through rugby.”

The Club has been working with the Fiji media to try to give equal coverage to women rugby players.  She adds that in the past 10 years, she has seen a recognition by the nation that women can have a career in rugby especially now with the inclusion of the sport in the Olympic Games.

It’s a good time for women to get into rugby especially since World Rugby launched a landmark global campaign ‘Try and Stop Us’ aimed at driving increased participation and engagement among fans, audiences, players and investors in women’s rugby.  World Rugby reports massive growth in women’s rugby to 2.7 million participants with a 28 percent increase in registered players since 2017.  World Rugby also reports that young girls have got into rugby globally than boys and more than 40 percent of rugby’s 400 million fanbase are female.

For more information on how to join the Club or support their activities – visit their facebook page.