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‘Pass It Back’: Leveraging the position of rugby as a non-mainstream sport in Asia
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Sports which are popular in some parts of the world may be virtually unknown in others – this can be an advantage in generating positive results.

The concept of ‘mainstream’ within the sport for development sector is not easily defined, yet it is important to acknowledge the significant role that the local context can play in this relative concept. Rugby is considered a mainstream sport across many regions, yet its position as a non-traditional, unknown sport in many parts of Asia provides it with a unique leverage point to achieve development outcomes and address systemic participation barriers. Pass It Back utilises rugby to equip children and young people to overcome challenges, inspire positive social change and ‘pass it back’ to their communities. Experiences have shown that in our context, much of this success is due to rugby not being a mainstream sport.

Pass It Back is currently working in Laos and Vietnam and has consistently had more than 50% female participation at all levels; player, coach and leadership positions. Given that this programme came out of a multi-sport project and that other sports were unable to achieve this, we wanted to learn more. Our research found that high levels of female participation were possible in rugby because there was no knowledge of the sport and therefore, boys did not ‘own’ it.

In our context, rugby provides a platform to address and respond to the rise of new risks and increasing vulnerability for the most disadvantaged citizens - especially girls and women - in a rapidly changing context, as seen in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). Pass It Back made a conscious decision to build an environment where males and females are represented equitably across the programme to establish a strong platform to engage on issues of gender and financial literacy; addressing the fact that young, vulnerable populations in our focal countries are at increased risk of violence, trafficking, exploitation and missing out on the opportunity to make informed decisions about their futures.

Rugby’s non-mainstream position offers a unique opportunity to level the playing field, not only by addressing cultural barriers to accessing sport, but also through developing leadership, life-skills and resilience among vulnerable populations. Of registered coaches and players, 52% (out of 1,538 registrations) in Laos and Vietnam are female despite only 37% of girls in the programme participating in any sport before taking part in Pass It Back, compared to 60% of boys.

This relationship between high female participation rates and a lack of prior awareness of the sport has provided opportunities for Pass It Back to engage on a global level and shape a narrative that challenges the ‘mainstream’ stereotypes associated with rugby, instead reframing the sport and leveraging its ‘non-mainstream’ status in the region. This has enabled the programme to play a role in not only growing the game, but also in creating a new narrative about who can and cannot play the sport. This platform has in turn allowed us to use the power of sport to challenge gender norms and build leadership and life-skills through this non-mainstream sport.


[This article has been edited by the Operating Team]

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