Meet Mai, a young player, whose life has been transformed by her introduction to rugby in Vietnam through a ChildFund-supported programme working with community clubs.

Mai, 13, who lives with her grandparents in a small village in the remote northern district of Tan Lac, has a hearing impairment which meant she found it difficult to make friends.

“In the past, Mai was often lonely. She had no friends. At school, she often sat alone during breaks because she could not hear what her friends were talking about,” her grandmother explained.

However, just under two years ago she was invited to take part in a tag rugby and life-skills session run by ChildFund Pass It Back, the principal charity partner for Rugby World Cup 2019, which would change everything.

Today, Mai plays for the Forest Flowers tag rugby team, and her daily life has experienced significant change as she has been able to make friends, and her confidence has grown.

“Mai is much more energetic than she used to be. Now when she is at home, she is so eager to learn and often gets her books out to study. Every day after having her meal, she volunteers to wash the dishes. She now also takes better care of herself,” her grandmother said. 

“Her personality has changed also. I can see that Mai is much happier since she joined the programme. She enjoys going to training and riding her bike to the pitch. On some days she even rides down the village road to see if any of her friends want to play rugby. After the sessions, she seems to be in a very good mood.”

Breaking barriers

According to Mai’s grandmother, the family thought it would be impossible for her to play sport due to her hearing impairment.

“When she was asked by a ChildFund Pass It Back coach to take part, we let her go but did not expect that she would be able to learn anything,” her grandmother said. “We had never seen a child who has disability in our community participate in any kind of team activity.” 

However, since Mai joined the programme, her coaches and team-mates have provided a great deal of support. When she steps onto the pitch, she sits close to the coaches during discussions so that she can hear what they are saying. 

Her team-mates take great care of her, and children visit her house more frequently, often collecting her as they go to school.

“When Mai joined in 2018, she often showed up to the pitch but sat at a distance from the rest and did not interact with anyone,” Mai’s coach, Thuy, said. “She learned slower than her team-mates and often dropped the ball, which would make her even more frustrated. 

“Initially, some of the players did not want to let Mai play in their team. We spent time talking to the team about this. We helped the players understand the importance of inclusion. Since then, they have been respectful and now consider Mai as a member of the team. Thanks to their help, Mai has become much more confident.”

‘I’m so happy I could be part of the competition’

Mai was given an opportunity to play in her first tournament in November, 2018. However, she was initially so shy and nervous that she didn’t join her team on the pitch.

It took the help of one of her team-mates, who found her a bib and tags and showed her how to put the bib on, to usher Mai into the game. 

As she walked onto the pitch, she was excited and the encouragement of her coaches and other players helped fill her with confidence. It proved a turning point, and helped Mai develop a greater sense of belonging, self-confidence, and self-esteem.

“I’m so happy that I could be part of the competition. I had thought that the competition is only for good and skilful players and not for me,” she said.

Fast-forward 12 months, to the end-of-season tournament, and Mai was actively playing in matches and showing a huge enthusiasm for the game.

Thuy added: “Before, Mai needed lots of support to start the game or activity, but now she picks up her equipment to get ready for the games on her own, just like her peers.” 

Children living with disabilities often experience significant challenges as a result of discrimination that denies them their right to take an active role in their community.

Supported by World Rugby and Asia Rugby, ChildFund Pass It Back coaches are setting a new example in communities. As they actively find and welcome players like Mai, they are role modelling inclusive behaviours for others to follow. Through their actions, they demonstrate that all children and youth, including those living with disabilities, should have their rights recognised and upheld. This work to establish and strengthen community rugby clubs has provided a sustainable platform to be more inclusive and to ensure that coaches and role models have the skills to not only coach rugby, but also to teach critical life skills.

Young girls like Mai have the ability to enrich their own lives and make a valuable contribution to their communities. They just need an opportunity, and encouragement and respect along the way. 

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