Dr ‘Unaloto Sili using scholarship to help drive change in Tonga

Dr Sili spoke to World Rugby about how her participation in the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme has aided her work with the Tonga Rugby Union.

When Dr ‘Unaloto Sili travelled home to Tonga in January 2020, during a break in her PhD studies, she did not expect to stay for more than a couple of weeks.

A netball player in her youth, she certainly would not have thought that four years later she would be leading the charge for change at the Tonga Rugby Union (TRU).

Dr Sili had left Tonga 13 years earlier to begin a law degree in Chongqing – “I chose China because it was so far away from home” – and stayed in the vast municipality to undertake her postgraduate studies.

She was midway through her PhD when she landed back in Nuku’alofa but would not make the return trip to central China due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, instead completing those studies remotely.

And having found a job in her homeland at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, with a focus on women’s affairs and gender equality, Dr Sili was approached about the opportunity of joining the TRU as it underwent reform.

Dr Sili has since helped to redraft the union’s constitution and is taking steps to modernise the federation, from both a diversity and inclusion and commercial perspective.

“I came from outside… I put in a new perspective because I told them, I don’t know anything about rugby, that’s true, but I know a lot about business and if we run Tonga Rugby Union as a business then we wouldn’t be going through these issues,” Dr Sili told World Rugby.

“It’s like I’m seeing my dream when I got into Tongan rugby become a reality at the moment, because everything is starting to become transparent.”

As she has approached her work as the union’s Governance and Business Administrator, Dr Sili has benefited from her parallel involvement with the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme.

Urged to apply for the programme by her boss at the TRU, Dr Sili was accepted on it as part of the 2023 intake and has been exposed to a global network of fellow female leaders, who have been able to share advice and support.

“It’s my first time getting to know other women in the same rugby space from all over the world,” she said. “I’ve never really expanded my horizon like that.”

“I get other women to help me with things I get stuck on. There’s nobody here in Tonga that has ever gone through that problem, especially as a woman,” Dr Sili added.

“We have this chat group [on the programme] and I would just write there and ask if somebody has faced the same situation and what had she done and what worked, what didn't work, you know, things like that.

“And it helped me a lot because I get replies from all over the world, even up to Zambia, and I realised that [we might be on the] opposite side of the world, but we’re going through the same challenges and the same problems.”

Last September, as the ink was drying on the new draft constitution, Dr Sili embarked on a seven-week study trip to the USA, visiting Hawaii, New York and Washington, DC with the Women’s Sports Foundation.

The Women’s Sports Foundation was founded by iconic tennis player Billie Jean King in 1974 to promote the benefits of sport and physical activity to women and girls.

“I got to really know how they came about, to push for equity and what they do in terms of their policies,” said Dr Sili, who has written a paper entitled ‘Chasing Equity in Tonga and the Pacific’.

“So, my key takeaway from the entire thing was that I got to see, step by step the process of how they managed to do it in 50 years something that can be done here in Tonga in less than five years because people are now more open to the idea of equity.”

Being able to apply the lessons she has learnt, or advice she has received, through the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme in Tonga is incredibly important to Dr Sili.

It is also something that has already started to happen. Last year Dr Sili ran governance and management education and training sessions for women and was amazed by the response she received.

“I was surprised by the amount of people who turned up,” she explained.

“For the sessions, I started seeking help from the network that I have [through the programme]. Then I applied that to the sessions, which was really good.”

Looking to the future, Dr Sili says she “can’t wait” until April, by which time a new TRU CEO and board is due to be in place.

She is confident local communities already feel more engaged with the union and there is optimism too about the future of the women’s game in Tonga.

In January, a women’s combine was held in the country giving players from the islands an opportunity to compete against those born in Australia, New Zealand and USA with Tongan heritage for a place in the national set-up.

And Dr Sili is hopeful that Tonga could one day emulate their Pacific rivals Fiji and Samoa and qualify for a Women’s Rugby World Cup.

“That’s the dream and that’s what we want to achieve,” she said. “It all depends on how well we do regionally, so the whole idea is that once we establish a place in the region then maybe we can go further into other tournaments.”

Last updated: Apr 16, 2024, 3:00:28 PM
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