In FairFem's second episode of the FairFem Interviews, we interviewed Helen Koyokoyo Buteme, a director of Rugby Tackling Life in Uganda, and Annekatrin Els, founder of COOFFEEE and supporter of RTL. RTL is a NGO based in Uganda and uses the meaning of the game to support rugby-playing girls and women. In this context they can encourage the girls to lead a self-ruled live. COOFFEEE is an online shop that sells high-quality Ugandan coffee, which supports the Ugandan coffee farmers and donates a portion of sales to RTL.
In a series of questions, we discussed several topics revolving around female empowerment. As the name suggests, RTL uses rugby as a way to tackle female issues in Uganda.
If you are like me, rugby is one of the last things that comes to mind when it comes to tools of empowering young women and girls. But, as it turns out, this sport has made a massive difference in these girls lives.
As Helen and Anne describe, the girls learn invaluable skills through the sport. Further, they also learn valuable life skills, such as menstrual hygiene management, sexual reproduction practices, and more.
Take a look at the whole interview here! Or, keep reading for a few our of favorite highlights!
Rebecca @ FairFem:
Please introduce yourselves and talk a bit about Rugby Tackling Life and Coooffee and how you got involved in each of the organizations.
Helen @ RTL:
I'm Helen Koyokoyo Buteme and one of the directors of Rugby Tackling Life. It started a couple of years ago, as an informal organization. We were just five women passionate about rugby. We had very young players in our rugby teams and they were from low social economic backgrounds, so we'd help them out with school fees, spots bras, training shoes, just stuff to help them get by. We come from different parts of Uganda though. So we had the idea: we go back to our home areas and the initial thought was to develop rugby. But then when we traveled to these regions, we again met with girls from low socioeconomic backgrounds and they were actually a lot worse off than the girls who were living in Kampala (the capital city).
They were really passionate, but they didn't have shorts. So they'd wear skirts because some of the areas it's considered immoral to wear shorts or trousers. Girls just had skirts or dresses. So they'd show up in what they have. So it'd be skirts, dresses, no sports bras, no shoes, basically nothing. And quite a number of them were not in school. So we started helping a few of them, but it became overwhelming. I mean, there's only so much that you can do from your own pocket. So we decided to form an organization where we could actually be like a formal structure, legally registered with the government and then be able to apply for grants and seek funding.
So we formed Rugby Tackling Life and it was Anna who came up with the name. So we use rugby as a tool for social change.
Anna @ RTL/ COOFFEEE:
My name is Anna I'm from Germany, but I moved to Uganda in 2009 originally for one year. And then I stayed for seven years. I had never played rugby before. And then I started playing with the men's team in Entebbe, which was super great. I learned a lot and then eventually I met Helen and that's where I got my nickname, the fat one that can run. Which isn't an insult at all, it is actually a huge compliment! We started playing together and like Helen explained just now, it is in Germany or in many other countries you have sports to entertain yourselves in the afternoon. Whereas in Uganda, sometimes it's a way to survive.
And we realized that once we got those girls together and we are involved with the community when we help them on that rugby pitch. Our coaches have found ways to talk to the girls, to get them engaged so that they continuously come back and we found ways to educate them in many other ways. And that's why it's also called Rugby Tackling Life because yes, rugby is tough, very tough. And you sometimes feel the the impact days after that, but like everything else you train and it makes you harder. Right? We also teach them to tackle life because sometimes all one needs is someone who tells you it's okay to fail, you just try again.
Rebecca @ FairFem:
Now if we can just back up a little bit and talk about the general situation for girls and women in Uganda. What is a typical path for a woman, whether that's in the countryside or in Kampala?
Helen @ RTL:
In Kampala, it's a lot easier for girls, but then again, it also depends on your socioeconomic status for the so-called middle class and the elite. They're able to go to school, complete education, like decide what they want to do with their lives. Going to university, you know, that sort of thing. Or if they choose not to go to university again, a lot of the times it's their choice. That is not 100% the case, but the general case is they can choose what they want to do with their lives more or less.
When you come from a low socioeconomic background and typically those are girls who are in the rural areas, you don't have that option - sometimes it's finances that prevents you from having the opportunity to study because education is not really free. So you're not able to go to school because the parents can't afford it. And sometimes parents make choices. And if it's to choose between educating a girl and a boy, they'll educate the boy because boys remain part of the family while girls go off to be married and are no longer part of the family. So they don't see why they should spend that money on girls.
Or some people believe that education spoils girls, you know, makes them get these notions that they're above what they're supposed to be, you know, makes it difficult for them to be good wives and mothers. So they choose not to educate their girls for that reason.
While some don't see the use of education because where they're living, quite frankly, there are no opportunities for growth at all. You could find there's one primary school in the entire village, then to go to a secondary school, you have to go to another district and it's several hours walk, which can be dangerous. And it also takes up a lot of time leaving less time for chores. So parents don't see the point, you know, there's no university around. So they think primary school is enough education for the girl. And then she either stays around the home if they don't want her to marry too early, or they marry her off the moment they get her out of primary school.
Rebecca @ FairFem:
Would you say that girls are treated equally as boys in the classroom by the teachers and by the system in general?
Helen @ RTL:
No. Uganda is a very patriarchal society. So I mean,
even in Europe and the U S and other parts of the world, girls and women are still fighting for equality. You can imagine how it is here, you know?
So girls have to work extra hard especially in class. And if you're a very bright girl and you're performing better than the boys, extra attention will be paid to you.
But generally girls' issues, women's issues tend to get pushed under. The things we do is menstruation hygiene management, because it is actually an issue. What we loved was that when we had these sessions, there were boys and men who requested to join in. So they were not looking at it as a women only issue.
So they learned about menstruation and they learned how to make reusable pads. Because finances are an issue, many girls are not able to access sanitary products. Either they're not there in the area or they are there and they can't afford them. So it means skipping school when they have their periods, or it means skipping anything, any social function, like just basically life goes on hold. And so you find girls missing three to four to five days a month of school. So they get dispirited, so some of them drop out completely.
Then there's also transactional sex. They'll have sex so they can get money so they can buy sanitary pads or some girls run away from home and get married so that they can have a form of financial security. Sometimes you can't blame families when you have so little money that you have to choose between food and medicine and sanitary products, sanitary products comes way down.
So these are the sorts of things which happen. So when you get men coming in and say, we want to learn about this too....we have sisters, we are married, so we want to help the women in our lives. We want to understand more about women. Then you're like, okay, so this is great. This is something which is helping, because they're not seeing women or women's issues as something which is a nuisance. It's like, these are part of us and we want to help them as best as we can.
Rebecca @ FairFem :
Which soft skills do the girls learn through rugby? I assume teamwork and independence and assertiveness, but could you each expand a bit more on what skills the girls have really developed by learning the game of rugby?
Helen @ RTL:
Of course the obvious one is teamwork. You get girls from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different cultures and different ages, and then also different abilities, but it's a team so you can't leave anybody behind. So what happens is if somebody's struggling with something, then the other girls find ways to help that person. So there's that aspect of teamwork and selflessness thinking of the other person, instead of just about you.
Then other skills you learn are leadership. If you're a captain of the team or if you're put in charge of certain things, then it's up to you to make sure things happen. You know you can even be in charge of something as simple as the rugby balls. So you have to make sure you're training on time, the balls are pumped and all the balls are available, you can't forget the balls at home. If you forget the balls, there's no session that can go on. You know? So just small things like that.
You're able to also express yourself, because you have to talk when you're on pitch, you need to talk to communicate with each other throughout - whether you're a leader or not. You need to let somebody know if you have the ball, you need to let somebody know if the defense line is breaking. So you need to be able to communicate effectively and efficiently, and that can be carried off the pitch as well.
When you want something, you have to work hard for it. If you want to play for your club team, if you want to play for the national team, you don't just say, I want to play for this team. You need to do what it takes to be able to make it, so it means working extra hard be it on the pitch, in the gym, watching rugby games, learn from other teams.
You need to work hard because nothing ever just comes on a plate. And it's the same thing in life. If you want something, you need to work with it, you need to work hard for it. It doesn't just fall into your lap, you know?
And then it's also about overcoming adversity. You can work really, really hard and you don't make it onto the national team. It can happen one year, two years, three years, do you give up? No, you keep going.
And then another thing is you can be in the middle of a game and you're losing, do you give up or do you just keep going? So those are some of the things you could keep playing a team and every time you play that team, you lose, do you give up and walk into the pitch? Oh, we're going to lose again. Or do you go back, figure out what went wrong. And then you come back and try and beat that team, you know? So that they're hurdles in life, life is never easy. So you need to find ways to jump over those hurdles. And if it doesn't work the first time, it's okay, go back and find another way to try and get over that hurdle or get around it. But you need to get where you want to go to.
Then just the aspects of respect - respect for your teammates, respect even for the opponents and then respect for the match officials. In rugby there's something which is said like the match referee is the sole judge of fact and law, you know, so basically what the referee says goes, you can't argue with it. You have to respect that decision. Referees do make mistakes. That's something normal and trying to contest those decisions on and on and on just doesn't hold it. You respect that. Then after the game, you can approach the referee and ask for an explanation why certain calls are made and the referee will give you the explanation.
Rebecca @ FairFem :
I think I could continue talking with you both for hours and hours, but I think we should wrap things up. So lastly are there any words of advice that either of you would give girls or women who are struggling to feel empowered?
Helen @ RTL:
What I would suggest is look at your struggle, draw inspiration from other people's struggles, but don't try and copy them exactly. Your struggle can never be exactly the same as somebody else's because their circumstances would be different. And then even your character as an individual would be different.
So I'd advise people to learn from others and then chart your own journey and never be afraid to ask for help.
The more people you ask help from, and the more opinions you get, the easier it is. What works for somebody else may not work for you. So you don't have to follow exactly what other people do, but you can pick what works for you from other people's experiences. You can adapt it, you can change it and make it into something that works for you. And don't only look to women. There's a lot men can offer as well. And I think the most important thing is if you believe in yourself, others will believe in you.
And if somebody believes in you, don't doubt it.
There's a reason why they believe in you. So find out why, and then get that belief in yourself as well.
Anna @RTL/ COOFFEEE:
That leaves me only with two things to add. The first thing is I would say, listen to your heart or your guts, whatever you want to call it, because there's always people who want to hold you down or talk you down or whatever. But if your heart tells you, I'm not too old to play rugby. I'm not too young to play rugby. I'm not too small to play rugby or whatever else, but your heart tells you actually, I can play rugby as long as I like and just do it right.
The second piece of advice would be to find your tribe, find the right group of people that even when you mess things up, they still support you. It's very easy to find people who will tell you whatever you are doing is wrong, bad, blah. It is very hard to find the right tribe who tells you go keep on going. We have your back, you will grow. We will grow together. And there's this fabulous, fabulous African saying, which says,
If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.
I love that idea. And that goes for every woman.
Rebecca @ FairFem:
Such good words of advice from both of you. Thank you so much.