Noame Rabeni has been surrounded by rugby since she was a child but it is only in the past two years that it has become her purpose.
Rabeni did not have the opportunity to play the game at school and although she travelled the world with her late husband, former Fiji and Pacific Islanders international Seru Rabeni, her role remained that of a supporter.
That changed in 2018 when she began working as a Get Into Rugby PLUS (GIR PLUS) coach at her school in Naluwai, Fiji, and she has since used the oval ball as a tool to both promote gender equality and help eradicate domestic and sexual violence.
“I never played rugby but my passion had always been there because I was brought up in a family where my dad was heavily involved in rugby,” Rabeni told World Rugby.
Findings recently released by Oceania Rugby and UN Women Fiji Multi-Country Office’s sport-for-development programme revealed the impact that GIR PLUS is having on the islands of Fiji.
Among the 332 youngsters aged between 10-14 enrolled on the programme in Fiji 85 per cent had done at least one thing in the last six months to promote equity between boys and girls.
Meanwhile, by the end of 2019 more than 93 per cent of girls and 97 per cent of boys in the programme knew of a place or person where they could go to report violence or abuse. More than 95 per cent of players selected their GIR PLUS coach as that person they could disclose experiences of violence to.
Excited to launch the results of our GIR PLUS #Fiji program with @unwomenpacific, showing transformative changes among players & coaches. Funded by @dfat's Pacific Sports Partnerships, & #PacPartnership: @EUPasifika @dfat @MFATgovtNZ @UN_Women. Read more: https://t.co/SzgpQ7nSBc pic.twitter.com/iH3WvXOamc— Oceania Rugby (@oceaniarugby) March 13, 2020
“We learn all the five values [of rugby] but in each session there is a value that is learned,” Rabeni added.
“The first session that we do is when we learn all the values and from there we build up their knowledge on all the values we’ve been learning and how it applies to their lives and how it applies to domestic violence and also gender equality.”
‘I’ve seen changes in them’
Rabeni believes that rugby is an ideal tool to teach those values because the children who enrol in the programme already have a desire to play the game.
The participants are taught the basics of the game, such as catching and passing, and are subsequently more open to taking on board lessons on gender equity.
Over the past two years Rabeni says she has seen a drastic change in the attitudes and behaviours of the girls who have signed up to GIR PLUS at Rara District School, where she teaches.
“Basically, it’s the values that we teach, and also bringing in real-life situations during our discussions, that will help them to understand more and to know more about where to get support,” she explained.
“I’ve seen changes in them. Actually, last year there was a girl who was with me and she actually opened up, I saw that she had the trust in me that she was able to share whatever she was going through with her family.
“So, for me, that was an impact of what I’ve been teaching them.”
Gaining confidence on and off the pitch
The influence that GIR PLUS is having in Fiji is not only from coach to player. Rabeni is not alone in relaying how being part of the programme has had a transformative impact on her as well.
“When I started most of the time I relied on the male teachers that [are] with us, to do the warm-ups, to do some skills but then when I joined the Get Into Rugby PLUS programme then I learnt more rugby skills, which I later taught my girls,” she said.
#Fiji's Ilisapeci Dela says @oceaniarugby's Get Into Rugby PLUS programme empowered her to empower other women and girls.— UN Women Pacific (@unwomenpacific) December 7, 2019
This #16Days series of amplifying #Pacific voices is supported by the #PacPartnership: @eupasifika @dfat @MFATgovtNZ @spc_cps @ForumSEC & @UN_Women pic.twitter.com/D4iTOJUMc7
“Now I’m getting more confident with how I deliver my sessions every week. That’s one [change] and the second one, is for me personally, it has changed me as a person in terms of the confidence itself.
“I used to be a really quiet person, a really shy person, you know, like standing in front of a crowd is not me but I felt that after I’ve been there I’ve been empowered.
“I’m learning as they are learning, when I’m teaching the girls what I’m teaching them about empowering girls, empowering women and getting support.
“It has helped me as well, in terms of how I build up my confidence. Not just in terms of coaching but in terms of how I interact with other people outside rugby.”
One such example came when Rabeni was chatting to two colleagues as they drove through a village where a girl had recently been raped.
A different perspective
Her colleagues asked “what was the girl doing outside at this time?”, a question to which Rabeni took exception as it placed the blame on the victim and suggested they did not believe women deserved the same freedoms as men.
“While I was talking I was thinking back and how I was in their shoes before,” she said.
“After all these safeguarding sessions and all these gender equality sessions that we’ve had I felt that I’m looking at things from a different perspective from before.”
Rabeni’s GIR PLUS programme at Rara District School has so far only been open to girls — who call themselves the Rare Rugby Warriors.
That will change in its third year and their coach is hopeful that working with boys as well can have a transformational impact on attitudes to women.
“[Boys and girls] will be thinking along the same lines and they’ll be respectful for each other once they’ve gone through the programme,” Rabeni said.
“Once there’s respect there’ll be even less or even no violence at all in our communities and our societies in Fiji. That’s what I believe.”