02 September 2014

Little beginnings

Linline with her father and daughter.
 © UNICEF Pacific./2014/Thakkar
Imagine being a little girl in a village of less than 500 people on an island in a country that most people don’t know exists. You live in a simple home – dirt floor with a tin roof. No modern gadgets like washing machines, vacuum cleaners or television. In fact, not even electricity. If you are lucky, there is a generator and enough fuel for it to provide some light after sunset. You are likely to drop out after primary school because your parents cannot afford secondary school fees. As a young woman, you will have your first child before the age of 21. Considering two out of three women in your country are victims of violent and sexual abuse, you are likely to experience that as well. Your daily routine involves waking up between 6-7 am, cleaning your home, doing the laundry, washing utensils, subsistence farming, cooking and caring for the family – every single day. This is your life.  

Now, imagine being a celebrity – let’s say Olympic material star sportsperson. You are paid to do what you love and you are good at it. You are jet-setting from one tournament to another, from one comfortable hotel to another, visiting more than 20 countries before the age of 25, meeting people from all over the world, giving interviews, being on television, being an idol to young children around the world who follow your sport. Depending on the sport, your ability to ace it and the country you come from, life could get seriously surreal but, for now, let’s just assume the basics. 

Now imagine living both these lives alternatively, switching from one role to another on a regular basis. 

Meet Miller Elwin, a 26-year old woman originally from a tiny village on Mota Lava Island, Vanuatu. She currently lives on the outskirts of the capital Port Vila with her husband and five-year old daughter. At the age of 18, for the very first time, she stepped out of her village to visit Port Vila to participate in the country’s beach volleyball championship. She was introduced to the game just two years prior to the tournament, but that was not evident as she won the championship and became one of Vanuatu’s best beach volleyball players. From that point on, there was just no turning back for her. 

Meet Linline Mansale, a 23-year old young woman from Mele village. Just 30 minutes drive from Port Vila, she lives in the village with her husband and 4-year old daughter. Raised in the same village, this is all she had known all her life until she got into the sport of beach volleyball. As a child, she had tossed around the ball every now and then, but she took it up seriously only at the age of 15. Within two years, she was representing Vanuatu in international tournaments.  

Their manager Debbie Masauvakalo still fondly remembers the first time the girls were preparing for an international competition and had to wear bikinis for the game. They refused to come out of the changing rooms, and when they eventually did, they were too shy. They tried hard to hide their bodies, quite unsuccessfully, behind the poles holding the nets. To wear a bikini publically for the very first time and then to perform as star athletes was quite a commendable feat. As the sport took them around the world, there were many other minor lessons like how to use the escalator and the workings of the pedestrian signals.

Since narrowly missing the London Olympics 2012, Miller and Linline have been working towards qualifying for the Rio 2016 Games. They are currently the best team in the Pacific. On the surface, it looks like a story of “simple” beginnings but as their manager Debbie rightly points out, it would be more accurate to think of it as “little” beginnings. Considering their complex patriarchal society, their beginnings are far from simple.

They’ve represented Vanuatu in several tournaments around the world, wining many medals for the country and putting it on the map of the international sporting arena. Despite that, like most developing countries, women’s sports in Vanuatu have a long way to go. Heavily reliant on fundraisers, local businesses and International Olympic Committee Olympic Solidarity, with limited resources, their success is not just phenomenal but also unexpected. 

On the personal front, both athletes say that the hardest of all challenges has been the cultural adjustments for them and their families. As these young women go on world tours to qualify for the Olympics, they are forced to leave behind their infants and step out of the traditional role of a mother and a wife. Women in Vanuatu find it hard to break these cultural norms, but Miller and Linline did it! They live a life beyond the first paragraph of this blog – the life of most women in Vanuatu. They realise they are different but, growing up, they did not envision or plan this for themselves. Neither of them ever thought of even stepping out of their village. 

I interviewed these remarkable women separately. I was quite intrigued with the fact that both, Miller and Linline, attributed their unusual life path of fantastic opportunities to one person in their life. Each completely convinced this was possible because of one and only one person in their life – their father. Clearly, the men in this society who are oppressing the women are also capable of supporting the girls in this country, of helping produce star athletes. 

Miller and her daughter getting done 
with the laundry for the day. 
 © UNICEF Pacific./2014/Thakkar
As I discover from Debbie, in Vanuatu and throughout the Pacific, the first-born son is the most important child in the family. However, in these rare cases, Miller and Linline’s fathers raised them no different from their older brothers. Their fathers are their rock, their role models and their final decision makers. In tough times, they turn to their fathers for a supportive word of advice. Their fathers are the ones who encouraged them to play sport, not just stay at home but aspire big. While extremely unusual, their fathers are the ones looking after the children when they are touring. Their fathers are the first at the airport upon their arrival home. Their fathers pushed and supported them into greatness because they truly believed in their girls. The girls, in turn, truly believe that their fathers are their biggest fans.  

I had the chance to meet Linline’s father, and she was right. He was her biggest supporter willing to take on the world, willing to stand by her side come what may. He spoke of her with pride and joy. He had one message for fathers of Vanuatu and other countries where a girl child faces similar challenges, “Be involved in the life of your child. Spend time with your child. Support her... you never know, your little girl may just be the next Olympic star. Mine definitely is one!” 

As Debbie aptly put it in one sentence, “The girls are the drivers of change, but it’s their fathers who are the vehicles.”  

Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC) says “Every child has the right to play”.

CRC@25: The Convention on the Rights of the Child turns 25 this year. Marking this anniversary year, UNICEF has declared 2014 as the Year of Innovation for Children.  

Neha Thakkar
Communications Officer

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If you would like to see these inspirational women play at Rio Olympics Games 2016, click on support on their web page www.vanuatuvolleyball.org

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