Sierra Leone Rugby Union (SLRU) chairperson Naasu Fofanah believes her nation has the opportunity to become a “beacon of promoting gender equality” by picking up an oval ball.
Fofanah, who had no active experience within rugby until January, has already overseen a restructuring of the union’s board which now consists of five women and four men.
She was appointed chairperson at the end of April and set up, and subsequently became head of, the union’s women’s advisory committee. Key positions within the SLRU Executive that are also held by women include, the deputy secretary-general and treasurer.
A former advisor on gender affairs to both the United Nations (UN) and the Sierra Leonean government, Fofanah is a strong advocate of rugby’s ability to help address the economic and social issues facing women in the West African country, and beyond.
“[I hope to see] Sierra Leone being a beacon of promoting gender equality using rugby,” she said when asked what she wanted to achieve through her involvement in the sport.
“No more ‘war-torn’ but Sierra Leone should be known as one of the pioneering countries that led the way.
“Knowing that the game created the opportunity to have more women and girls educated, to bring peace, cohesion, to bring equality and equal opportunities and choice.
“If boys can say ‘I’m not afraid to let a woman lead me’. Or men say, ‘Well, you know, they did it in rugby why can’t we use that to get the first or second or third female president, we’ve seen them lead’.
“So it’s that rugby can be the disruptor of changing the narrative in Sierra Leone on women's and girls' empowerment and gender equality.”
Although the legal age for marriage in Sierra Leone is 18, Unicef stated in 2013 that 39 per cent of women aged between 20-24 had entered into a union while 17 or younger.
"I hope to see Sierra Leone being a beacon of promoting gender equality using rugby ... knowing that the game created the opportunity to have more women and girls educated, to bring peace, cohesion, to bring equality and equal opportunities and choice."
Moreover, a UN Population Fund report in the same year found that 38 per cent of women aged between 20-24 had given birth before their 18th birthday – the seventh highest rate of adolescent pregnancy in the world.
Early marriage and teenage pregnancy are two of the key barriers that Fofanah believes prevent young Sierra Leonean girls from completing their education.
According to the UN Girls’ Education Institute, only 50 per cent of female 15-24-year-olds are literate, compared to 69 per cent of men. And although 62.9 per cent of girls attend primary school, that number drops to 25.1 per cent by junior secondary school.
Fofanah, therefore, intends to use rugby as a means to bridge that gap, keep young women and girls engaged with education and promote a more healthy relationship between the genders.
Rugby for social change
“If we’re able to have them while they’re waiting for that transitional period to go to senior secondary school and encourage them, use rugby to have them in a place where they can play, we would be supporting an increase of girls’ enrolment into secondary school.
“We need this for our country because this is a gap, this is something that we’re suffering and the government is struggling to address that.
“The playing is good but the social change is what we [want].
“Could rugby be used to eradicate sexual violence between young school kids in secondary schools in particular? Could rugby be the answer to closing the gap on school dropout rates between junior secondary school and senior secondary school?
“It might not be the whole thing but could it play an influential role in actually bridging that gap and narrowing it?
“For me, if that happens I think I could retire today and feel like there is one thing I have done well in my lifetime.
“That would be using this game to give an opportunity to the next generation of women in my country.”
Fofanah had initially been attracted to rugby as a spectator by the feats of former All Blacks winger Jonah Lomu, although she admits that “when he died [in 2015] I think I felt like I got pulled away”.
It was not until she was studying for a Joint Executive Masters at University College London and NYU Wagner as a Pentland Scholar that the sport came back into her life.
During a trip to her sponsors offices, she was surrounded by images of smiling faces in Canterbury kit and hit on the idea that rugby could help Sierra Leone.
“I just went on my Facebook page and said ‘Do we have a rugby team in Sierra Leone? Do we play rugby?’,” Fofanah said. “And actually people started laughing.”
Fortunately for Fofanah, the West African country not only had a team but the union had already earmarked reaching out to the gender equality specialist when she returned from her studies.
“I went back to Sierra Leone, I wanted to know what they were actually doing. I wanted to understand properly,” she said.
“Then I realised that the structure was basically nil. They had an executive but it wasn’t really working.
“Most of what was happening was around the current president, who has worked very hard over the last eight years, so there are teams in the city and up country. But I noticed why they haven’t moved [is] that they weren’t properly structured, they were struggling to get people who can support them.
“So I said to them, ‘This is what I can come in with, we have to have a governance reform within the union’. And honestly, I thought they would reject it.”
However, the SLRU was extremely open to listening to, and enacting, her ideas.
“They were happy, and from that structure I got two people who played rugby here in the UK, female, we got a good team of women who are passionate, who are ready. Once we set that we thought ‘wow’.”
Fofanah knows she still has plenty of work to do. The SLRU is in arrears with Rugby Africa but she says she is working on repaying the money the union owes and raising funds so that her country can compete on the international stage.
Qualification for the Olympic Games is a dream but it is not the reason that she is putting in so much effort to grow the sport within Sierra Leone.
“I would want to maybe sit in my little village and hear somebody saying ‘Oh, you know I almost dropped out of school but I got into the rugby camp and that meant my parents didn’t take me to go and get married or I didn’t fall to the ills of teenage pregnancy or sexual violence’.”