When GameChangers and the Fiji Volleyball Federation started talking about a design process for the Pacific Sports Partnerships program, we wondered if applying pressure to the point of most resistance could trigger the cascade and get an entire village involved in sport. What if older, inactive women who are most at risk of non communicable disease – the mamas, aunties, wives, businesswomen and groups of friends living in peri-urban Fijian villages had fun, got healthier and mastered new skills by playing volleyball? In a highly connected village environment, would that open up the door to the young people and men to also be more physically active?
Asking the right questions
There is not a lot of evidence-based know-how when it comes to engaging this age group of women in sport anywhere in the world. Most participation research tells us women are dropping out of sport long before they reach middle age if not before they finish adolescence. We were limited to researching the social issues that impact Fijian women and understanding the elements of initiatives that were making a difference.
To understand the barriers and opportunities for participation in sport, the Fiji Volleyball Federation went to the source. First came a series of scoping conversations with board members and staff, provincial council, village headmen, women’s groups and organizations that provide services to the community. During these conversations there was support for formative research with members of the community
The formative research was supported by local behaviour change specialists and included desk research that focused on the micro- environment of the village, household interviews, surveys, observations and day-in-the-life and community mapping. The research gave the design team many splices of information about timing of activities and festivals, uniforms, coaching styles, complementary health activities and safety concerns that were used in the making decisions. Just as importantly, the process gave team members the chance to get to know community members and bring them into the design process.
During the field-work, women in the targeted age group from both villages were asked about the motivation and barriers to participating in sport. Some of the women believed that women were not allowed to play volleyball and two others saying responded to the question of what would stop you from playing volleyball “my husband will not allow me to play” and “my husband will punch me.” This reaffirms the control of men over any collective women’s activities in the village and is also in line with the findings of a recent national survey of violence against women and girls conducted by Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre. Other barriers specifically mentioned by the women include, “family commitments, housework and cooking, having to look after the kids, sickness or injury, no organized tournaments, lack of skills or knowledge of the game, too big to play volleyball.” At the same time, 80% of the women from both villages who responded to the questionnaires, had played volleyball at some point during their lifetime. All but one woman from one village said they would play if there was an organised tournament and 73% of women from another village said they would play if there was an organised tournament.
Stop or go on?
GameChangers and the Fiji Volleyball Federation shared considerable concern about the potential of exacerbating the existing threat of violence against women. The results of the research were presented to the stakeholders who recognized that the information was consistent with other research about the incidence of gender based violence Instead of stopping the program before it began, the groups came together to discuss ways this program could participate fully and safely in sports programs. If the violence against women could be addressed comprehensively in this context, the village headmen reasoned, it might carry on to other parts of life.
Making Sport Safe
With consultation with the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, Fiji Volleyball Federation developed a member protection policy and decided to focus on 6 practical steps to creating a safe path for women to play sport:
1.Communicated with the village headmen regularly.
As the leaders of the communities, the village headmen are invested in enhancing the safety, well-being and prosperity in the village. They have the opportunity to support or block new activities. Fiji Volleyball followed formal protocols in the initial stages and later kept up less formal, regular contact. The right people took part in the conversations and issues were addressed methodically and respectfully on a weekly basis. This meant issues did not have the chance to escalate, momentum was maintained and the mystery had been removed from the program before it had started.
2. Engaged with the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre.
The Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre supported development of protection policies and ran sessions that opened up discussions about issues that underpin gender based violence. This was attended by all of the headmen of all in the province. They were also on hand to help deal with incidents and problem solve as the program progressed.
3. Enlisted the support of the male advocates.
Male Advocates are men from the village who have gone through robust training program with the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre. These male advocates are able to solve conflicts and become agents for positive change in addressing and preventing violence against women.
4. Increased the value of sport by connecting with community values.
This program was originally positioned as health and wellness program that used volleyball as a tool to bring women together. Women who joined the program had health assessments and were referred to health clinics if they were at high risk on non communicable disease. They attended education sessions that conveyed information about preventing non communicable disease. The women were also able to access services like voting registration, social security and pension services at the volleyball festivals every 6 weeks. This saved the women and their families time and money usually devoted to trips into town to do these errands. The more value sport had, the more people were encouraged to participate.
5. Designed the program for the women but opened the door to men and children.
The volleyball program was run in the hour between resting after working in the fields and greeting the children when they came home from school. This was a time of day they women had some reprieve from chores and also slightly more privacy in the village. Concurrent, supervised play based activities were provided for children who were too young to attend school so the women could be relieved of child minding. As soon as the program was seen as being valuable, men became interested in playing the sport. Fiji Volleyball was happy to help them start a program as long as it did not compromise the main event, the women’s program. Within about 6-months, a delegation requested Fiji volleyball’s support to set up a new local association.
6. Told stories that made all members of the community proud.
The festivals were attended by provincial, sport and diplomatic dignitaries. They were showcased in local papers and social media as well as regional publications. Both women and men were interviewed and their achievements were highlights. The program went on to win both a Beyond Sport Award and Peace and Sport Award. These are both international awards that were won for the first time by a Pacific Island nation, contributing to pride and interest across the region.
Did it work?
The main goal of the program was to reduce the risk factors of non communicable disease by increasing participation in physical activity. It was this goal and the related objectives that were monitored and evaluated. There has been no formal follow up on the general attitudes and behaviours with regard to violence against women. This seems to be a common fault in sport programs that, once having addressed the barrier to participation, fail to follow up to find out whether long-term change has occurred or if it is merely conditional on the sport program existing. Anecdotal reports include:
Incidents are getting reported and addressed with the support of Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre. There has been mention of men in village are addressing issues informally.
The program is continuing and growing. Numbers increase as the older generation encourage younger women to be involved.
Women who participated in volleyball report having a positive experience and plan to keep participating.
Men are taking over some of the women’s duties (e.g. child minding in the afternoon) while the women train or play.
Some men are expressing support for the women being more energised and active.
The stories demonstrate that, while the program isn’t going all the way to solve gender based violence, it is providing more options for addressing the issues as they arise.