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Isabelle Yeboua - a revolutionary for women's rugby in Ivory Coast
Isabelle Yeboua has been fully involved in the development of women's rugby in Ivory Coast for the past 20 years and has been accepted onto the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme to support her work.
The heat in Abidjan, a city currently going through its rainy season, is easing off a little. It is the end of the day and Isabelle Yeboua is enjoying the peace and quiet of her office at the Fédération Ivoirienne de Rugby.
It was last March that she received confirmation that she was a beneficiary of the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme. Her second attempt had paid off.
"I didn't believe it when I opened the email," says the woman who was supported in her application by her union and by Rugby Africa, which has made the development of women's rugby on the continent one of its priorities. "This time, I tried without much conviction. I said to myself 'you never know, it might work'.
"I think the difference this time came from an interview where it was noted that I was very active, that I was everywhere to develop women's rugby in my country."
However, don't ask Yeboua if she is now the "boss" of women's rugby. "Not the boss. More a revolutionary," she explains with a laugh, as her ambition is to make a lasting difference.
An unknown sport when she started
When she first discovered rugby – thanks to a sports teacher in high school – the sport was unknown to her, as it is to many young girls in Ivory Coast.
The oval ball, the impacts, the physical challenge that the sport represents – it was a change from the handball and football she used to play. But it was nevertheless in rugby that she blossomed.
"It was a new sport. I said to myself 'why not?'. It came naturally. Honestly, I can't explain why I fell in love with rugby. It's beyond sport, it can't be explained. The family spirit appealed to me straight away. The boys and girls were together and a bond was created. I was welcomed straight away. It is this spirit that has kept me in rugby," she says.
At university in Abidjan, another teacher urged her to go further, feeling that she could contribute to the union.
"One morning, I went there," she recalls. "And I just kept going back all the time. I didn't know anyone, but the people received me and welcomed me."
She didn't play much, but soon realised that she could make an impact in other ways – in refereeing for example, but also in administration. "There was a lot of work to be done, and that's what's exciting; I want things to change," she says.
Bringing rugby to the country
Isabelle feels "like a missionary", despite what she herself heared at home – how could a woman play a sport that was considered physical and violent?
"Ivory Coast is a fairly progressive country, but there is still this traditional mentality among parents," she says. "They say: 'My daughter, I prefer her at home rather than on a sports field'. That's still the case today. They ask: what kind of rugby are you playing? And what is it for?"
What didn't help Isabelle and her friends was that at that time, the number of competitions in women's rugby was close to nil.
"But we didn't give up," she says. If the boys organised a tournament, then she and some of her friends would also go and play a charity match. "We wanted to organise friendly matches in front of everyone who had come to see a boys' match."
Isabelle and her friends are pushing hard, taking advantage of every opportunity. "We wanted to encourage people to get involved, that's why we set up little games and extra sporting get-togethers to share these moments."
Her activism and commitment were quickly spotted by the federation, which gradually entrusted her with the development of women's rugby in the country. "I was doing my little bit," she says modestly, guided by her thirst for sharing and success.
From the bottom to the top
Isabelle has been involved in the youth committee and then the women's committee, of which she is now president, on two fronts, starting at the bottom and now at the top. That all changed when a place on the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme came her way.
"Initially, I would like this grant to give me the resources to strengthen everything I know, so that it can be used in support of strategies to promote women's rugby in Ivory Coast," she says. "I have also decided to train to become a sports manager, to manage a larger number of things.
"With all this, I hope to inspire and train other girls and help them to continue this work. There are no professional female rugby players in Ivory Coast, but girls can also aspire to roles other than those on the field."
Things soon changed. Isabelle was part of the staff of the first women's rugby union team to defend the colours of Ivory Coast in Tunisia in 2021.
She was assistant to the coach and started to make history. And the following year, she initiated the country's first women's rugby league with four teams.
"It's just wonderful," she smiles. "I think I'm very lucky. I'm very happy and very moved to be at the top of women's rugby. I have a lot to learn and I'm looking forward to sharing with the people around me.
"Thanks to the federation's commitment, I will be in contact with dynamic, fighting women who are working all over the world."
Isabelle Yeboua will soon have the opportunity to meet her peers. World Rugby has invited her to attend the Rugby World Cup 2021 to be played in October and November 2022 in New Zealand.