AFL Vanuatu promotes gender equality on and off the field

By Jarrod Landells

There has been a distinct hum of energy and action as AFL Vanuatu’s Plei Footy Blong Jenis’ (Play Footy For Change or PFBJ), a program for gender equity supported by the Australian Government’s Team Up’ initiative, finally got underway after the disruption of the pandemic put a dampener on many such sport for development endeavours.

The efforts of AFL Vanuatu and their partner, the Vanuatu Women’s Centre (VWC), in getting PFBJ going have been significant. Hundreds of women and girls have joined in less than a year of formal activity from central Port Vila to the suburbs, from the small island of Nguna to the vast expanses of Espiritu Santo.

In many ways, the program is still in its very early stages according to AFL Vanuatu’s Development Officer Nancy Patterson who steers the program on the ground.

“This year I have seen women really show interest, despite the late start. But next year, I truly believe we can be very successful and branch out into high schools.” she said.

A diverse collective of students, hotel staff, ‘mamas’, associates of the Ministry of Justice and more have all benefited from the comprehensive program aimed at engaging women and girls in an inclusive and fun sport while promoting community leadership.

Education sessions around domestic and Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and resources to address and prevent said violence are delivered via VWC’s team of trained staff in an environment where participants are given time and space to feel safe and be able to express their thoughts.


Anastashia Kalsakau is VWC’s Digital Communication Officer and has been an important driver of their work with PFBJ.

“AFL Vanuatu has put the PFBJ program together to help gender relations and tackle issues of violence. Through the program, the VWC is pleased to have organised a five-day workshop on GBV, Family Protection Law and Human Rights,” she highlighted.

“It’s a great opportunity to give out community education about VWC’s responsive services, help prevent violence before it occurs and advocate for women and girls more generally. It turned out very well and some women in the community have invited AFL Vanuatu back to help set up a team!” Anastashia enthusiastically shared.

It is this enduring joy for social sport that will drive lasting engagement with the values and goals that PFBJ was designed to promote.

While WVC and AFL Vanuatu are building momentum and are future-focused, it’s important to take stock and look back at the story so far which is what Melbourne’s Victoria University (VU) is doing.

Professor Clare Hanlon is a globally renowned researcher on women in sport. Her research team has analysed PFBJ data to identify the outcomes of the program for the benefit of women and to enhance AFL Vanuatu’s focus on gender equity moving forward.

“Participation in sport, particularly for girls and women, encourages confidence, lifelong health, well-being and helps reduce domestic violence. We as a community, need to create inclusive and accessible sporting environments that are safe for girls and women and encourage their involvement. The PFBJ program is a prime example of creating this environment,” she said.

“One aspect to create a safe and inclusive environment is to empower women as leaders. Findings from this data indicated that as leaders, these women believe they are supporting their community to be healthy and active. These women want to help others play and lead in football and want to connect with other people. Social connection is a key outcome for this program, for women as leaders and for girls and women as players.

“In order for the program to grow, it needs women as leaders… ‘you can be what you can see’. The more women who take a leadership position, the more role models’ girls and women see and aspire to.”

PFBJ is supported by ‘Team Up’, the Australian Government’s sport for development program for the Asia-Pacific region. Recently PFBJ was front and centre at a week-long Team Up visit to Vanuatu, alongside multiple initiatives of other sports such as cricket and volleyball, all of which aimed to help boost participation and inclusiveness across genders and abilities.

AFL Vanuatu through their PFBJ program have attended several safeguarding and gender workshops organised by Team Up.

“Programs like Plei Footy Blo Jenis support people to realise their full potential through sport,” said Team Up Social Inclusion Specialist, Roshika Deo.

She further added, “AFL Vanuatu through engagement with the Vanuatu Women’s Centre have enhanced their advocacy on gender-based violence and are now able to access support services provided through the Vanuatu Women’s Center. This partnership has led to greater impact of the PFBJ program.

“Not only does the program allow for women and girls to experience the positive benefits of playing Australian Football, but they are also learning about gender and making valuable connections to help address gender-based violence in their communities.”

It’s at that community level where PFBJ shines brightest and has the most impact. Nancy Patterson has made it a priority for AFL Vanuatu to engage in areas where inclusive sport projects can have the most impact and is most needed. AFL Vanuatu are also in dialogue with other local organisations and institutions to further the scope of output – be it greater methods of reducing GBV, promoting the next generation of leaders or helping put good health outcomes in the spotlight.


AFL Vanuatu is one of the six leagues going from strength to strength in the South Pacific. The team is based in Port Vila and conducts Pikininikik (Auskick) programs all around Efate, and has recently launched in Santo, providing programs for up to 4,000 boys and girls in schools and communities annually.

The local youth and senior competitions are extremely competitive with a focus on growing the sport and developing good behaviours around health, disability inclusion and gender-based violence through their ‘Plei Footy Blo Jenis’ (Play Footy For Change) Program, proudly supported by the Australian Government’s Team Up initiative.

With a strong team of Development Officers and a range of local and expat supporters in-country, it’s only a matter of time before Vanuatu announces itself on the world stage, both at Oceania Cup and International Cup level.

AFL Executive General Manager of Game Development Rob Auld said the league facilitates and supports a wide range of programs in the Pacific region and works closely with partners such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as well as local community engagement experts, to fund and deliver programs.

“Through our various programs and competitions, Australian football can play a role in having a positive, lasting social impact on communities and help to drive health, wellbeing, and social cohesion outcomes,” he said.

“At the pre-COVD peak, well over 100,000 people across the region were participating in Australian football in some form including playing, coaching, umpiring, and volunteering. The bounce back has been really strong and we’re aiming and tracking well to get back to those numbers in 2023.

“Activities having an impact across the region including grass roots development programs and competitions for juniors and seniors, which progress through to the AFL South Pacific High-Performance Pathway.”

AFL Vanuatu’s theme is ‘Footy That Erupts With Excitement’ and their representative sides are known as the Volcanoes after the famous reservoirs of geothermal heat and geographic change; in the scheme of things PFBJ could very well be their most earth-shaking feature yet.

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