Georgian Rugby UNiTEs to End Violence against Women and Girls

©UN-WOMEN/MAKA GOGALADZE

 

In 2010, unusual billboards appeared in the streets of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. From the billboards, stars of the most popular sport in the country—rugby—called on society to engage in efforts to end violence against women and girls. Since the issues of domestic violence and violence against women and girls were taboo in Georgia and not openly discussed, the message was unexpected and even shocking. It was especially surprising to see rugby players, usually perceived as representatives of one of the most violent and masculine of sports, speaking out about it.

The innovative advocacy campaign followed the establishment of a partnership between the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) and the Georgian Rugby Union. When rugby players learned about the disturbing situation in the country concerning violence against women and girls, they immediately expressed their readiness to help solve the problem. Thus the idea for the first joint project was born. In March 2012, tens of thousands of fans attending a match between the Georgian and Russian national rugby teams at one of Tbilisi’s largest stadiums were the first to hear the announcement: “this game is dedicated to the United Nations Secretary-General’s Campaign UNiTE to End Violence Against Women”.

At the time, a major part of Georgian society perceived violence against women and girls, and domestic violence in particular, as a “family matter”. People thought that society should stay out of it. In 2009, 78.3 per cent of the population shared this view.1 Victims were reluctant to report even severe cases of violence. That situation has changed. According to a study conducted by UN-Women in 2013, only 25 per cent of Georgians surveyed still believed that domestic violence was a family matter, while 69 per cent thought that it was a crime.2

Along with the relevant government agencies, international and non-governmental organizations, media and other actors, the public awareness-raising campaign conducted with the participation of Georgian rugby players has made a significant contribution to changing attitudes. Because rugby is beloved in Georgia and rugby players are the most respected among the country’s athletes, the example they have set for other men and boys has been profound.

The billboard appeals were followed by videos starring rugby players condemning violence against women and girls that were viewed by millions on television and social media. The goal of the campaign was to raise awareness among men and boys about violence against women and girls and to promote zero tolerance for such acts. As the next step, Georgian rugby players began meeting in person with young men and boys throughout Georgia. The discussions typically start with sport and the unwritten rules of the game: rugby is a gentlemen’s sport founded on the principles of equality, mutual respect and support. Rugby is a big family, where everyone is equal; equality is the lifestyle for all players. The rugby players then convey the messages of the campaign promoting zero tolerance towards violence against women and girls. The meetings usually end with rugby training and the distribution of rugby gear branded with the campaign messages.

The meetings with young men and boys are always packed, and often adults and elderly people attend, too. Sometimes, mostly in regions of Georgia where the problem is especially acute, participants initially disagree with the rugby players. Ultimately, however, they begin to reflect on the message and speak out.

“Everyone loves rugby and respects rugby players in Georgia. That is why it is important to use the authority of and respect for rugby players to help shape values of the younger generations for a fair and equal environment for all, free from violence”, says Lekso Gugava, a member of the Georgia National Rugby Union Team, nicknamed “the Lelos”.

Apart from the regular meetings with young men and boys, it is now a tradition for the Lelos to devote several international matches per year to the cause of ending violence against women and girls. One of the main supporters of the cause is Milton Haig, head coach of the Lelos. “Each and every one of us—the Lelos, the coaches or members of the big rugby family—is proud to wear T-shirts with the messages of this campaign condemning violence against women and girls. This is to show that we always support this endeavour. Violence against women and girls concerns everyone and it is strictly unacceptable”, says Haig.

As part of its support, the Georgian Rugby Union, in cooperation with UN-Women, has developed a special manual for rugby coaches to guide them in teaching young people the principles of gender equality and the inadmissibility of violence against women and girls, along with the values of rugby. These issues are now part of the mandatory licensing programme for coaches.

Two years ago, Georgian rugby players decided also to speak out for gender equality. In 2014, following the launch of He for She—the solidarity movement for gender equality—the Lelos expressed their support by dedicating their match against Japan to the campaign in front of 52,000 fans. Another tradition was born that day—girls accompanying the rugby players to the pitch before kick-off to sing the national anthem. As unexpected as it was for the fans, this tradition went viral on conventional and social media. As a result, an idea for a new campaign emerged. A video was disseminated on social media featuring young girls once again accompanying the Lelos to the pitch, but this time, it was the girls supporting the rugby players for the upcoming Rugby World Cup 2015. “My Team Supports Me!” was the slogan on billboards throughout the country, urging society to think about the stereotypes that condition masculinity in the country today. It was a gesture of solidarity around the idea of equality and yet another initiative of the rugby players supporting gender equality and condemning violence against women and girls.

“It is vital that men speak about gender equality, because it concerns us as much as women. This is why as many men as possible should get involved in this movement”, says Sandro Nijharadze, a rugby player. Soon after, other athletes followed the example of the rugby players and joined the campaign. Giga Chikadze, a kick-boxing world champion, and Georgian football players have openly supported the cause and held meetings with young men and boys throughout Georgia.

In 2016, the Georgian rugby players took the initiative aimed at ending violence against women and girls beyond the borders of their country. The Spanish football club Valencia and UN-Women recently launched a partnership to promote gender equality through sport; Nodar Andguladze, a former rugby player and UN-Women Consultant on Sport and Youth, was invited to share his experience with the Spanish athletes.

In addition, the Lelos who participated in the Oceania Tournament in Samoa in June 2016 were invited by the local UN-Women office to meet with students at Avele College. The office selected the College because it had recently faced numerous incidents of conflict and violence, some of them requiring the engagement of law enforcement. It should be noted that as in Georgia, rugby is the dominant sport in Samoa, and rugby players are highly respected.

“Any violence, especially violence against women and girls is unacceptable. For us, the rugby players, to fight violence is a duty and I hope that soon, you too, will join us”, said Mr. Andguladze, addressing 500 students at Avele College, along with the Lelos. The rugby players have spoken about the values of rugby and, through the example set by the Georgia National Rugby Union Team, they have stressed the significant role that sport can play in ending violence against women and girls.

National rugby teams of other countries have shared the experience of the Lelos as well. On 25 June 2016, the qualifying match for the Rugby World Cup 2019, between Samoa and Tonga, was dedicated to the United Nations Secretary-General’s Campaign UNiTE to End Violence Against Women and was seen by 6 million people worldwide.

The successful initiative of the Georgian rugby players is gradually expanding beyond Georgia, and the Lelos are hopeful that rugby will UNiTE the world to end violence against women and girls globally.

 

Notes

  1. Marine Chitashvili and others, “National research on domestic violence against women in Georgia”, Final Report (Tbilisi, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 2010), p. 37. Available from http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cedaw/docs/AdvanceVersions/GeorgiaAnnexX.pdf.
  2. Nana Sumbadze, “Study of the perceptions and attitudes towards violence against women and domestic violence in Tbilisi, Kakheti and Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti regions of Georgia (2013)”, Report (Tbilisi, UN-Women, 2014), p. 59. Available from http://www2.unwomen.org/~/media/field%20office%20georgia/attachments/publications/2014/english-study%20unjp.pdf?v=1&d=20150410T184908