World Rugby Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship recipient Vanessa Doble is determined to use her platform, and rugby, to help alleviate gender-based violence.

According to the United Nations, violence against women and girls has increased during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in what UN Women has described as the ‘shadow pandemic’.

Doble, who is a World Rugby Council member and sits on the Women’s Advisory Committee, is currently working remotely on a Master of Studies in Social Innovation at the University of Cambridge.

The South African’s dissertation for the course, which is due to be completed in June, will focus on sport’s ability to address issues that impact on women.

“It's putting a zoom lens on gender-based violence, which I think impacts a large base of our rugby community,” Doble told World Rugby.

“A lot of women are being placed in vulnerable positions, and I think sport offers an escape from those situations, even if at a baseline level. 

“It's just the support of... the women there doing something together that enables them to have discussions about the issues that really impact them.”

Opening up opportunities for women

Doble has been partly inspired by the story of Catherine Muranganwa and her team-mates at Sahumani Secondary School in eastern Zimbabwe, whose involvement with rugby prevented them from becoming child brides.

“There was a beautiful article that I got that sparked the idea around [a] young woman in Zimbabwe who said by the age of 18, her two sisters had already been married off and rugby was the only thing that kept her away from that being the predetermined outcome,” Doble explained.

“She came from a very poor household and the mere fact that she had this opportunity to go and play sport and meet with other women meant that she had an opportunity to channel her energy somewhere else.

“It was through her mother insisting on her playing sport that she was able to escape that outcome. And I think that's a reality for a number of women on this continent and from marginalised communities. 

“So, participation in the sport gives you the confidence, it gives you the strength, it gives you some physical sense of resistance, but it also opens up a whole lot of choices which otherwise might be denied to you.”

Through her research, Doble is hopeful of proving Nelson Mandela right and showing that “sport has the power to change and transform the world”.

Doble now works as SA Rugby’s Head of Legal and Compliance, but like most South African women her age, she was not offered the opportunity to play rugby at school.

Her brother did play when they were young, although only socially. “Rugby was one of the things that he did,” Doble said, “but it was not the primary thing that he did.”

It was not until her own sons started school that she truly understood the pulling power that the game could have.

“I have two young boys and I thought, well, the natural path for these boys is probably going to be soccer,” Doble said.

“I was like, look there’s an opportunity to do soccer after, and they were like, ‘no mum, we’re not interested — we want rugby’. I said: ‘What is it about this sport?’ 

“I’d go on Saturday when they’d have their matches, [to] go and see. And it was just the camaraderie, it was just the joy that this sport gave them that I suppose spiked the curiosity around, ‘OK, let me take a closer look.’”

Try And Stop Us

Shortly afterwards, in August 2016, the opportunity to join SA Rugby arose and Doble decided to take it, primarily to learn more about the game that had hooked her sons.

It has proved a wise move. Doble has discovered both a sport and job that keep her engaged, with her role touching on a wide range of topics from contract and negotiations to policy making and ensuring the union is compliant with the latest laws and regulations.

Alongside her roles on the World Rugby Council and Women’s Advisory Committee, she has also worked with Rugby Africa’s Women’s Leadership forum.

Doble was, therefore, delighted to see World Rugby’s ‘Try And Stop Us’ campaign transported to the continent as Rugby Africa announced its own list of Unstoppable women in October.

“It's a brilliant campaign, but it could be perceived as too far removed from my reality,” Doble said. 

“When you localise it, it's now my reality and my possibility or my inspiration. It's people that I can feel and touch and connect with. 

“So, the localisation of the campaign is absolutely pertinent for us to drive the participation. Otherwise, at just the global level it [can be] distanced. It's achievable, but long-term. 

“Whereas when you look at it and you see Babalwa [Latsha] and you think, ‘Hey, hang on, I can be her. I can do that’. And I think it also helps with the key issues around stigmatisation. 

“Certainly in the research that I did locally, there was a sense that sometimes women are discouraged to play rugby because it's a traditionally male sport and girls don't do that. 

“But when you see these real life examples that you know, then it becomes one of those things that says, hang on, I can blot out those stereotypes or that narrative because here are people that are doing it. So I think it gives you that additional help and inspiration.”

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