Blazing a trail for women in Fiji
Lavenia Yalovi, who works for the Get into Rugby PLUS Fiji program under Team Up, reflects on how sports opportunities for Fijian women and girls have changed since her journey began.
Story courtesy of Oceania Rugby
Lavenia Yalovi will be happy if her extraordinary journey to sporting success is a path no other Fijian girl has to take.
After facing many challenges to succeed as a female in sport the 43-year-old, who now works as the national coordinator of the Get into Rugby PLUS Fiji program under Team Up, is spearheading change.
Growing up on Kadavu Island in Fiji's south, Lavenia was forbidden from playing sports that were considered a male's domain for risk of being ostracised.
"It was very traditional, culture-wise," she said of her upbringing.
"Contact sports and hockey were seen as male-dominant sports and if I ran onto the field to play those games, I would be called different names labelling me. They would say you are a tomboy if you play touch or rugby."
Lavenia stuck to traditional women's sports like softball and netball until moving to Fiji’s capital, Suva, for secondary and tertiary education.
Remarkably, Lavenia only kicked a football for the first time when she was 25 years old and working as a social science teacher.
"They needed a female to help with female students’ sports," she explained. "I thought 'why not?' I knew I had it in me, and I love sports, so I tried it and loved it.
"I slowly increased my knowledge and influenced other students to join in. I think me coaching really empowered female students to be part of physical education."
She added with a laugh: "They were so hungry to be part of it I had to hide in the library to get my class-free time!"
Lavenia proved just as quick a learner as the students she taught. Her on-field skills improved so rapidly that, less than a year later, she was part of Fiji's national women’s football squad, making her international debut and playing three matches.
In 2019 she also made history as part of the first all-Pacific islands female commentary team at the FIFA Women's World Cup in France.
This multi-talented sportswoman also represented Fiji in hockey and rugby union, setting down a marker for future generations of women to follow.
The big difference is those now looking to emulate Lavenia won’t have to travel such a circuitous route while confronting so many barriers.
Through her work on Get into Rugby PLUS, which is delivered through a partnership led by Oceania Rugby, Lavenia is seeing a rapid shift in attitude towards women and girls playing sport.
"There has been a massive change in the opportunities given to girls in primary schools now,” she said. “I only wish I was given the same opportunity back then.
"This is a very good program. We not only have fun learning the skills but also teaching other rugby union values like discipline, integrating respect and life skills, gender equality and preventing violence against women.
"We have had our challenges with COVID-19 but our coaches have been very creative in reaching out to children.
"We have more than 100 children involved in virtual sessions every week and at the end they are given homework to do something new at home. A boy can wash dishes for example, or a girl can do something they don’t normally do. These tools we are giving them are driving change."
The Fiji women’s 7s team’s bronze medal win at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games has only hastened the pace at which change is happening.
"It really helps. It is a blessing. I see a change in mindset among parents," Lavenia reported.
"There are an increasing number of girls, not only of Fijian ethnicity but those with Indo-Fijian background and other ethnic groups, whose parents are calling and asking how their children can play rugby. The demand increased tremendously just because of the bronze medal win.
"It has opened up more doors for women as players and I hope to see more women in leadership roles as well.
"We are building a platform for the future for girls and women who would love to play any sport, particularly rugby."
This story was produced by Oceania Rugby as part of ‘Women in Rugby…Respect’ month.