Vanuatu uses traditional island cricket to change and save women's lives

Rachel Andrew is one of the leading cricketers in an island nation famous for its stunning beaches. She has scored more runs for the women's national team than anyone else and averages an impressive 11.50 with the ball.

Cricket is her passion, as it is for many women in Vanuatu - an archipelago across the Coral Sea from Australia, whose population of 307,000 is roughly the same as Nottingham. Its women's T20 team ranks 28th in the world, making it probably the country's most successful sporting side.

Despite that, traditional values have created barriers that have prevented many of Vanuatu's 'mamas' from playing sport - but the Vanuatu Cricket Association (VCA) is trying to change that.

"I heard some people saying 'mamas, they belong in the kitchen, clean the house, looking after the kids', but no - it's wrong," said Andrew.

"We've got to help each other and promote gender equality. Let them know they have the right to enjoy themselves out there in sports or any activities."

As well as misogyny, the women of Vanuatu also face increasing health concerns, particularly in the form of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes.

The Women's Island Cricket Programme was started in 2012 to change attitudes and improve health education and access. It now involves nine communities around the capital city of Port Vila and includes women of all ages, from 15 to 90.

"We have a 20-week programme and we include health awareness, a medical check-up and nutrition class to help them cook healthy food for their family," explained Amelia Lawac, who has been involved in the programme from its inception.

"Then on top of that, they play island cricket."

Played in full island dress, using banyan bats and balls made from the tree's sap, island cricket is a little different from the version played at Lord's - teams have two batters and two runners, often younger daughters asked to do the more athletic work while their mothers rack up the runs.

"It's very, very competitive!," Lawac laughed. "The first team we started with, they have to stay the winner. They want to be first every time.

"Here in Vanuatu, you don't see a lot of mamas wearing shorts or playing sports. Here they can wear the island dress, and no-one can give bad feedback. They just want to get up from the kitchen and come enjoy themselves."

Andrew agreed that island cricket is helping Vanuatu's women: "It helps them to come out of their comfort zone. I admire a lot from our mamas… in the field, playing island cricket with their beautiful island dresses, laughing, smiling and enjoying themselves. It really helps the mamas to stay fit and eat healthy."

The programme has been a sporting success - several of the younger players have gone on to play for the national team - and has improved its participants' health outcomes.

"The majority of the mamas never go to a clinic to get checked," said Lawac.

"Some of them, we find out that blood pressure was really high, blood sugar high. We helped them go to NCD clinics to get medication. They've become healthier, lost weight, they are able to do certain things they weren't able to do."

Lawac thinks part of the programme's success has been down to including the participants' husbands, who are often invited to join classes and get involved in the women's discussions.

"We have some of the mamas where the husbands were very strict, they don't want their wives to come and play sport," she said.

"We have to go and talk with the husband and tell them the benefit of the programme, so they could understand what we are doing for their mamas.

"I saw a lot of husbands coming out and supporting their wives while they're playing island cricket. That's a good thing for the mamas, seeing their husbands come out and support them."

The Women's Island Cricket Programme is now expanding to include education around another issue the islands' women face - gender-based violence.

A 2011 report by the Vanuatu Women's Centre found that six out of 10 Ni-Vanuatu women would experience physical or sexual assault in their relationships, while nearly half would encounter violence in family settings. Hannah Tamata, the VCA's social impact and inclusion manager, believes matters are beginning to improve.

"People are more aware of what is happening in the community. People are coming out to say, 'I am a victim' and going to the right providers to seek support," she said.

The VCA has also appointed a number of ambassadors - including Rachel Andrew - to go into schools and help to educate the islands' children.

"The focus for us is the younger generation now… so that they know that these sorts of behaviours are not accepted when they're in the care of their parents or their caretakers," she said.

Off the field, there is optimism the Women's Island Cricket Programme is making a real difference to women's lives, changing perceptions and improving the health and wellness of participants across the generations.

On the pitch, the women's team have laid strong foundations for success - they finished third in the 2019 Pacific Games, the last international cricket they played before the pandemic, and have won six of the 12 matches they have played.

In September they will play in the regional qualifier for the 2023 Women's T20 World Cup, and are serious contenders to progress ahead of more established teams. Win that tournament and they will be just one step away from the World Cup itself.

Former Ireland opener Jeremy Bray has recently been appointed as high performance manager - working with both the men's and women's teams - with the ambition of making that prospect a reality.

As Tamata put it: "The future is looking very bright for us."