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Making rugby more inclusive

Copyrights: School of Hard Knocks

Making rugby more inclusive

The School of Hard Knocks' Project #NextGenMen is working to create a gender equitable space for young men and women through rugby.

Violence against women

Given the well documented epidemic of violence in this country, it’s safe to say that South Africa is a hard place to be a woman. In the past couple of weeks I have been deeply affected (and moved to write this piece) by comments expressed by a number of young women from the School of Hard Knocks programme. In an exercise intended to share their own experiences of gender, young women who, at 16vor 17 should be focusing on friends, family and completing their education, spoke about the continuous threat of sexual violence. Many simply stated ‘If I was a boy, I would have to worry less about being raped.’

Fast forward a week, I was delighted to be introduced to the Springbok women’s captain, Babalwa Latsha, who was born and raised in nearby Khayelitsha. An inspiration to young athletes, she shared a little bit about her journey to becoming Africa's first professional female rugby player,

“When you are different, a lot more muscular than average, [and] you play a male dominated sport – which is not too attractive to the average person – you become prone to a lot of criticism, sometimes insults, and even being ostracised."

Though you may not think it, these two individual experiences are intrinsically connected - evidence suggests that gender inequalities, manifested in patriarchal social norms or attitudes, like that experienced by Babalwa Latsha increase the risk of violence towards women. In other words, by perpetuating the myth about what ‘womens’ bodies should ideally look like’ we prop up the grave and deeply entrenched imbalance of power of men over women called the patriarchy. When that imbalance is threatened, it can lead to violence.

Pioneering approaches to gender through sport

Sport may seem an unusual vehicle for affecting violence against women. Sport is one long-established example of a social norm entrenched in patriarchal views and attitudes. Many of us can testify, particularly those who have emerged from all-boy schooling environments, that sport can be a prominent stage for the display of hyper-masculine male behaviours such as dominance and aggression.

However, given it’s cultural dominance, sport serves as an accessible and valuable vehicle for change. Emerging evidence continues to highlight the role of charities using sport in replacing negative gender norms with ‘more positive and progressive beliefs about women and gender relations.’ Discussing gender norms, dating violence and sexual abuse among teenagers and young adults has yielded positive results internationally (See Safe Dates programme in the United States of America and the Youth Relationship Project in Canada). 

SOHK’s own findings (from a study into SOHKs work initiated by the Laureus Foundation) strongly suggests that working with young men is key. While 94% of the study’s 18 participants initially conveyed skepticism that girls could play rugby, 67% participants later acknowledged that their previously held views were challenged. 89% of the participants lent verbal support to a ‘new way of doing things’ regarding traditional gender roles at the end of the project.

Our Approach: Project #NextGenMen

SOHK’s Project #NextGenMen is working with 200 adolescents in Cape Town to create a gender equitable space for young men and women through rugby. Our gender awareness content (developed in partnership with the Gender Institute at UCT) is delivered alongside 26 life skills sessions throughout the year. The unique content addresses problematic social stereotypes, challenges perceptions around traditional gender norms and raises awareness about abusive and disrespectful behavior at an age before they can become deeply ingrained. In addition, the project aims to install a sanitary pad vending machine in each school in partnership with Menstruation Foundation.

Springbok Captain Babalwa Latsha says "It’s of utmost importance that we mobilise young people and we educate them to bring down gender stereotypes on a daily basis. As a female rugby player myself this is something I do every single day. We need to finally reach a point where young boys see young women as their equals and vice versa. My message to young people is that it's up to us to change the present and the future. The School of Hard Knocks and it’s programmes therefore are very important as it equips and educates towards that. Let’s continue to be champions and bring down gender based stereotypes."

SOHK Founder Scott Sloan says “By engaging our Coaches to deliver programmes to young male and female participants, the #NextGenMen project seeks to change perceptions around traditional gender norms and promote gender-equitable and non-violent attitudes. Though we are still learning and growing in our approach to gender-aware coaching practices, we are excited to be making a small contribution to ending GBV in South Africa.”

SOHK Senior Coach Urshwin Engels says, "After our training at the Gender Institute I was way more aware of my own gender and how gender impacts others. Letting kids know about this at a young age will make more socially-aware adults."

Gender Based Violence campaigner Siv Ngesi says, "My message to young people is simple, be whoever you want to be, no-one should tell you otherwise. I’m proud to support School of Hard Knocks and their efforts to dispel gender stereotypes. I love seeing exceptional female rugby talent when I visit their programmes. Please help support their work in whatever way you can."

If you want to support SOHK’s work please contact or donate at

About SOHK

School of Hard Knocks is a growing international non-profit network operating in the UK and South Africa that uses rugby and one-on-one counselling to help young people cope with trauma, and improve their physical and emotional well-being. SOHK South Africa (SOHK) was started in early-2017 and their uniquely qualified Counsellor Coaches currently deliver mental health programmes to 200 youth, and 300 of their caregivers, from adverse backgrounds at five under-resourced government schools in Cape Town.

SOHK’s data relays how their learners are staying in school (73% reduction in school drop out against average) and behaving better (57% reduction in students being given ‘many’ behavioural referrals). They are growing in personal responsibility, managing their emotions and coping better with stress (81% students say they are better able to cope when things go wrong).


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Monday, June 7, 2021 - 11:07

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