On Tuesday, World Rugby will again celebrate International Women’s Day with the expansion of its Women’s Executive Leadership Scholarship programme.
Designed to help its recipients break into the boardroom, the Scholarship has also grown into a global network that is helping female leaders to thrive and grow in rugby.
Past recipients have gone on to fill governance roles at a local, national and regional level and the knowledge gained along the way has been passed down to those who have come after them.
“When we get together internationally, I have a tendency to sit back in awe a little bit,” 2021 recipient Annabel Kehoe told World Rugby recently.
“There are a lot of people doing some fantastic work in their home nations or regions.”
Nahid Biyarjomandi is one of those women. In January the 2021 recipient, who was also part of World Rugby’s ‘Try And Stop Us’ campaign three years ago, was appointed unanimously as chair of the Asia Rugby Gender Equity Committee.
Iran Rugby board member Biyarjomandi was recommended for the role by her predecessor Ada Milby, the World Rugby Council member who was part of the inaugural Scholarship programme in 2018.
“It’s been an honour to see the growth of women’s rugby year on year in Asia and see some big milestones achieved with constitutional changes, record number of Union Presidents who are female and a strong network of women all passionate about growing the game in their communities,” Milby said.
“I’m excited to pass the torch to Nahid who will continue to lead the Gender Equity Committee forward, exploring more ways to remove barriers to make rugby more accessible to all.”
Elsewhere in Asia, 2021 recipient Sarah Abd Elbaki continues to break down barriers for female rugby players, referees, coaches and administrators in Syria.
Viengsamai Souksavanh, who joined the programme a year earlier, meanwhile, is currently CEO of the Lao Rugby Federation and is working towards “making the environment better” for women and girls who want to play the game in the country.
“A mix of wonderful ideas and people”
In Africa, Maha Zaoui – who received the Scholarship in 2018 – was appointed Women’s Rugby Manager at Rugby Africa two years later and has used the role to help unearth a new generation of female leaders.
Zaoui and Rugby Africa launched a new Sports Management Training Programme last September, an online course designed to drive women’s rugby development projects on the ground in participating nations.
“The idea is that if everyone works in their union, women's rugby in Africa can grow together,” Zaoui told World Rugby at the time.
Peris Mukoko, part of the 2021 Scholarship intake, has been grateful for the support of Zaoui, who guided the Kenyan through the application process while she adapted to parenthood.
Mukoko has been inspired by the work and achievements of the previous recipients to such an extent that she launched a campaign to become vice-chair of the Kenya Rugby Union.
She said: “The networks actually help because you're able to get… if it's not a mentor, it's someone cheering you on. If it's not someone cheering you on, it's someone who's working with you.
“If it's not someone working with you, it's someone who has the same challenges that we're facing in Kenya [and asking:] ‘But how best can you actually manoeuvre through that?’
“So, the women in leadership network is actually a mix of wonderful ideas and people that I'm borrowing heavily from as well.”
Such stories continue across the world. When Fijiana won an historic bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games last July, one of the team’s unsung heroes was a 2019 Scholarship recipient.
Team manager Vela Naucukidi had confidently told World Rugby prior to leaving for Japan that Fiji’s “plan is to reach the podium” and so it proved as the team became their country’s first ever female medallists at the Games.
Five years previously at the Games in Rio, Marjorie Enya worked as Services Manager for Rugby Sevens.
Enya was then one of the inaugural Scholarship recipients in 2018 and her career in administration has since soared, becoming a Confederação Brasileira de Rugby board member and representing Sudamérica Rugby on the World Rugby Council.
“I’ve seen what rugby can do to women for women,” Enya told World Rugby in 2018. “I’ve seen the level of confidence, of solidarity, of friendship and loyalty, all that kind of stuff. I had never seen anything like it before rugby.”
In Europe, 2021 recipient Rebecca Davies created history when she was co-opted onto the Rugby Football Union Council, and the 51-year-old recently returned to the pitch as a referee.
“I decided to challenge myself and find out if I could still do the job and also to try and help answer the desperate call to recruit more match officials,” Davies said.
“The reward was the smiling faces of the players and coaches who entered into the spirit of the game and just let the rugby happen…we had fun!”
Former Canada international and 2018 recipient Dr Araba Chintoh, meanwhile, was named chair of World Rugby’s Women’s Player Welfare Steering Group last November.
The network provided by the Scholarship has been a great source of support and inspiration for Chintoh.
She said: “We get together, quarterly on Zoom calls, and we share experiences, we share our own personal projects, and we hear what's happening around the world – we are literally around the world.
“So, that community has bolstered me in terms of knowing that if I help to make a decision about something, it's actually going to impact my friend in Iran, or Laos, or Austria.
“The scholarship has provided me with a global community in rugby as well as given me access and authority to lead.”